Those looked like the Lakers everyone expects to see.
The Lakers who showed up at Staples Center Tuesday night were up double-digits in the first quarter on a pretty good Hawks team. Those Lakers cruised to a 104-80 win. Those Lakers looked nothing like the ones that dropped three straight games at the end of the Grammys road trip. These Lakers looked infinitely better than the team that wore the same jerseys in Cleveland.
What was the difference between the Lakers of this Tuesday and the ones that lost to the woefully bad Cleveland Cavaliers six days before? Sing it Aretha:
The Lakers respected the Hawks, they didn’t the Cavaliers. The Lakers respected the game Tuesday; in Cleveland their heads were already on vacation for the All-Star break. The Lakers decided to respect the defensive end of the floor Tuesday as well.
Lakers fans were horrified at the loss to the Cavaliers. But people close to the team were not that surprised. The Lakers didn’t respect the Cavaliers, and when they don’t respect a team they show up flat, don’t execute and anyone can play with them. Combine that with Cleveland being the last game of a road trip and the last game before the All-Star break and some people thought it was a trap game for the Lakers. One they walked right into.
Tuesday night, the Lakers showed fans what happens when they do show up, when they do respect an opponent and the game.
Monday the Lakers coaching staff made the team sit through the horror film of defensive lapses from the past few games. It was Exorcist level scary. It had everything but Andrew Bynum’s head spinning all the way around and throwing up split pea soup.
The Lakers players got the message and they were aggressive on defense — especially Bynum who was clogging up the lane, altering shots and grabbing boards. The Lakers defensive rotations were crisp.
The Hawks had no answer for that. And they were ice cold. They shot 34 percent in the first half and 37 percent for the game. They were 1-15 from three. Heck, they only shot 68 percent unguarded from the free throw line. Every Hawk not named Al Horford (6-for-9 shooting) could not find the range. While the Lakers defense was part of that, the Hawks were missing open looks, too.
Conversely, the Lakers were hot. How hot? When Derek Fisher drained his first three shots you knew it was going to be that kind of night. They were attacking hard, as evidenced by drawing fouls and getting to the line 40 times. They did whatever they wanted. All 12 Lakers who dressed for the game scored.
It’s not going to be that easy the rest of the way. The Lakers have the second toughest remaining schedule in the league (the Lakers remaining opponents have won 55 percent of their games). Even if the Lakers are respecting their opponents an the game, their schedule will make it hard to catch the teams above them, or even win at a faster clip.
There are all sorts of questions about these Lakers. Fans are worried and talking about trades — big trades. The team’s mental makeup has been called into question. Kobe Bryant was called into question.
But it’s just a matter of respect. And tired legs (the Lakers are an older team that does not deal as well with long road trips). When the Lakers respect their opponent as they did Tuesday they are a force, one of the league’s elite. Their length is nearly impossible for teams to deal with.
Tuesday night they were singing respect in a way that would have made Aretha proud. And in a way that should remind everyone that come the playoffs — when they do respect their opponents and have plenty of time to rest — that they are still the champions. And knocking them off that thrown will not be easy. Not in the least.