Lakers are suffering an identity crisis


Who are these guys?

It was a question everyone asked before the NBA first-round series began last weekend at Staples Center. It was a question involving an uncertain team with a strange identity. It was a question about age, emotion and energy.

It was supposed to be a question about the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But two bruising, breathless games later, it has become a question about the Lakers.

Who are these guys?

Are they the star-studded defending champions who, despite stumbling to the regular season’s conclusion, vowed to revive last year’s spring magic by flipping that proverbial switch?

Or are they the suddenly aging, wearily inattentive group that can’t find that switch because they keep bumping their heads in the dark?

Amid a Staples Center roar that sounded a lot like relief, the Lakers took a two-games-to-none lead with a 95-92 Game 2 victory over the Thunder on Tuesday, but it was more unsightly than inspirational.

The Lakers blew an early lead, were outscored 21-8 to end the first half, fell behind by a basket with 2:49 remaining in the game, then escaped only because Kobe Bryant is still occasionally Kobe Bryant.

The game’s best closer, as he is wont to do, essentially grabbed the ball and said stop me, scoring 15 fourth-quarter points, including six consecutive after the Lakers fell behind.

But even then, it was a missed free throw by Bryant that gave Kevin Durant a chance to give Oklahoma City the lead in the final 10 seconds. Durant missed the three-point attempt and Pau Gasol grabbed the rebound and game . . . nope, not over yet.

This time, Gasol missed a free throw, giving Jeff Green a chance at an open-look three-pointer to tie at the buzzer. He, too, missed and the Lakers survived.

“We’re still trying to figure out how to win some of these close games,” said Thunder Coach Scott Brooks, den leader of the league’s youngest team.

What’s the Lakers’ excuse?

History says that, by virtue of their Sunday victory — Phil Jackson’s teams are 44-0 when they begin a postseason series with a win — they will win this series.

Pedigree says that, by virtue of the championship rings that litter their starting lineup — 10 for the Lakers, zero for the Thunder — they will win this series.

But nothing says this kind of work will win anything beyond this series. Nothing says this sort of play can survive the likes of the Dallas Mavericks in the West, much less the Cleveland Cavaliers or Orlando Magic in the Finals.

“We’ve got to get a lot better,” said Luke Walton. “We’ve got to come with a different mind-set.”

A critical eye was even cast by Kobe Bryant’s father Joe, a Japanese league coach who was watching his son play in person for the first time in five years.

“I like sitting home because I can curse,” Joe said with a laugh.

Was this the same Kobe you remember?

“He makes shots and he misses shots,” Joe said.

These certainly weren’t the Lakers that past spring crowds remember. As I was writing parts of this column immediately after the game, purple and gold streamers were falling around my computer at courtside. For once, they only felt like so much plastic.

How out of sorts are the Lakers? On one possession in the final minute, leading by three, Bryant threw a pass that nearly bounced off Gasol’s face because Gasol wasn’t looking. After seven months together, how does that happen?

“We’ve been here before, we know what to expect,” said Jordan Farmar. “We just have to go out there and do it.”

Who are these guys?

Is this the Bryant who, seemingly inspired by his father and talk of his first-game inactivity, came charging out at both the beginning and end of the game? Or is it the Bryant who spent the middle parts of the game struggling to compensate for his injured finger and deal with his injured knee, his shots blocked or short, his defense a step slow?

Who are these guys?

Is this the Andrew Bynum who dominated in the first game, with 13 points and 12 rebounds? Or the Bynum who barely showed up offensively Tuesday with three baskets, and missed two big free throws in the final five minutes?

Is it the Derek Fisher whose rainbow three-point shots still seem to find playoff gold? Or the Fisher who was beaten for a second consecutive game by the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, outscored, 19-5, before he fouled out.

“The first-time jitters, we got them all out, we know what to expect,” said the Thunder’s Green. “We know it’s going to be physical. We know every possession is going to count.”

After two games, the Thunder has made that point very clear. As for the Lakers, it’s still very cloudy.