The lack of toughness was a topic two seasons ago when the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, including a one-sided defeat in the last game.
The Lakers said they learned from the experiemce and won last season’s championship.
But the issue was back on people’s minds Christnas Day when the Lakers were pushed around and humiliated by the Cleveland Cavaliers, 102-87 at Staples Center.
The marquee players were Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Both demonstrated their excellence. But the guys who determined the outcome were the Cavaliers’ hard-working big men, Shaquille O’Neal, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
It was only the Lakers’ fifth loss of the season. But it was revealing because most of their wins come against the many dreadful teams who already know they won’t make the playoffs this season. An occasional test against a formidable opponent tells a lot about a team.
On this day the Lakers lost the inside battle. The most disappointing development was Andrew Bynum being clearly outplayed by O’Neal.
Remember, the Lakers rid themselves of O’Neal and hoped Bynum would come out of high school and develop into another in an impressive list of successful Laker centers. But here was O’Neal, in his 18th season — the longest of any NBA player — dominating the kid.
O’Neal scored six quick points on three dunks, then knocked Gasol heavily to the floor. Gasol proceeded to falter in his matchups with both Ilgauskas and Verejao, the latter contining to impress me as one of the NBA’s most underrated players.
As the game progressed and I wrote notes to myself in the press boxn my thoughts were confirmed by Laker announcer Joel Meyers, who pointed out statistics handed to us showing the Cavaliers winning every inside battle.
The Lakers were being outworked and the sellout crowd booed when the home team fell 20 points behind in the second quarter.
Later, both the Laker players and the fans lost their composure — the players drawing five technical fouls and fans throwing foam hands — given to them free as a promotion promotion — onto the court.
I traveled with Laker teams for 23 years and experienced the fatigue that can’t be avoided over an 82-game schedule. And it’s not always on the road when a team goes flat. It can hit a few days later. I’ve been told the most dangerous game is the first one at home after a trip.
The Lakers had that game earlier in the week, barely beating Oklahoma City. Then they met a team on a mission — a Cleveland team that won its third straight road game as it moves closer to Boston and Orlando, the best teams in the Eastern Conference so far this season.
It was a day when Cleveland point guard Maurice Williams ran circles around Derek Fisher, who showed his age.
But the biggest Laker problem was their inability to control play around the basket, leaving Coach Phil Jackson with an obvious task in upcoming days.