For six months, the Lakers’ third time was a charm.
On Sunday, it resolutely and reprehensibly crumbled into a curse.
The expectations were too heavy. The distractions were too large. The bodies were too weary. The heart was too faint.
And, believe it or not, the Dallas Mavericks were too good, the NBA’s softest playoff team pounding the Lakers into sweeping submission with a 122-86 victory to finish off a four-game sweep of the second-round playoff series.
“I don’t know where we lost it ... that drive, that bond we had in the past, that cohesive drive in order to overcome adversity,” said Lamar Odom.
They weren’t just beaten, they were embarrassed by two punk moves that led to ejections, humiliated by a crowd that sang and jeered them off the court, and shamed into an uncertain future.
“It’s going to be a l-o-o-o-ng summer,” said Ron Artest.
It’s been a long three years, with the two-time defending champions finally collapsing under the weight of issues both personal and professional, a lack of locker-room trust tearing apart their fabric on the court.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen the Lakers play in a game that they need,” said Magic Johnson, team vice president, during a televised halftime show.
In the horrific final two hours Sunday, they didn’t pass, they didn’t shoot, and they didn’t guard anybody, raising a white flag that allowed the Mavericks to tie an NBA playoff record with 20 mostly wide-open three pointers.
The Mavericks put a broom to so much more than one team and one season here, clearing the NBA postseason not only of its marquee franchise, but perhaps removing all traces of them for the foreseeable future. They have no coach. They have no bench. They have little money to get better quick.
“The Lakers fans have had their hearts broke,” said Artest. “And all those people who aren’t Lakers fans are now laughing at the Lakers fans.”
Swept away was Phil Jackson’s 20-year coaching career, his 1,973rd and final game possibly his worst, his resume of 11 championships now containing the smudge of a man who finally lost control of his club.
In his trademark emotionless style afterward, a retiring Jackson admitted that the burden of attempting to win a third title was too much.
“A lot of strain on a basketball club from all angles -- personalities, spiritually, emotionally,” he said. “It was a challenge bigger than we could beat.”
Swept away was the idea that Kobe Bryant has enough left in his aching legs to personally spring a team to a title. Bryant failed in two final possessions that could have won the series opener, then averaged only 19 points in the final three games, an aging star who clearly needs more help.
“I’m not very happy about it ... to say the least,” he said during a terse news conference in which he said the least.
Swept away too was the idea that Derek Fisher’s veteran leadership can still overcome his physical limitations. In this season’s biggest test of the Lakers’ will Sunday, Fisher scored one basket while really not leading anybody anywhere.
Also swept away was the thought that Artest is a changed and focused man. His suspension for a dumb foul in Game 2 helped cost the team a victory in Game 3, and he spent most of Sunday lost in defensive space while Mavericks wildly flew around him.
“God can win 10 championships in a row, but I’m not God,” he said.
Perhaps more than anything, the notion that Pau Gasol can be this team’s next great leader was swept away. His sudden and odd postseason disappearance was the most obvious reason for the Lakers’ troubles, his fall completed Sunday when he scored 10 points while being pushed around by everyone but his coach, who thankfully refrained from hitting him for a second consecutive game.
“I have to learn from this,” Gasol said. “I have to learn that when something happens off the court, you have to keep it off the court.”
He was referring to the report that he stopped talking to Bryant during the postseason because Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, had contributed to the breakup of Gasol and his longtime girlfriend. Lakers fans will remember Karl Malone publicly accused Vanessa of interfering with his personal life in a similar fashion.
Whatever was happening, Bryant and Gasol haven’t connected on the court in a month, and the Lakers have been lost without the strength of their fusion.
“We just never got a rhythm, ever,” said Odom.
Also swept aside was the idea that Odom can win a championship while being Mr. Hollywood. You say that the “Khloe & Lamar” show didn’t hurt his postseason? I say he had 10 points and two rebounds Sunday while being ordered off the court after a cheap fourth-quarter shoving knockdown of Dirk Nowitzki.
“I was embarrassed,” said Odom. “It was a humbling experience, I’ll tell you that.”
In the end, nobody should have been more embarrassed than Andrew Bynum, who threw a dangerous right elbow into a flying Jose Barea moments after Odom’s cheap shot, knocking the little guard to the ground and resulting in another ejection. Bynum further shamed himself and the franchise by tearing off his jersey before he left the court, and I have just one question.
Are you sure the Lakers were better off not trading him? I have been ridiculed for this stance by folks who are suddenly very quiet about it now. I’m not wavering. I believe that if the Lakers want to win a championship while Bryant is still mobile and Gasol is still young, they need the kind of top point guard or scorer that Bynum can bring in a deal.
In the meantime, Lakers fans must spend the l-o-o-o-ng summer haunted by memories of plays such as the one early in the third quarter Sunday that typified their collapse, Artest’s racing down for an open layup that could have possibly changed the momentum.
It was blocked by the rim.
The two-time defending champion Lakers were dethroned by their toughest opponent, that dysfunctional group known as the two-time defending champion Lakers.