May 8, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike Brown during a time out with point guard Ramon Sessions (7), point guard Steve Blake (5), power forward Pau Gasol (16) and shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) in the final seconds of game 5 of the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs against the Denver Nuggets at the Staples Center. Denver won 102-99. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Mike Brown has one shot to pull the Lakers out of their tailspin and maybe save his own job.
Laker fans have never really warmed to Mike Brown. It's not totally his fault: he had the misfortune, if that word can describe any situation that pays you more than $4.5 million a year, to succeed the most legendary coach in the sport's history and to have won the job over Brian Shaw, a longtime Phil Jackson assistant deeply respected by Laker fans. Phil and the Shawfather are tough acts to follow, and in all likelihood anyone the front office would've picked to replace them would've spent the past season as the object of fans' grumpiness. The lockout, truncated preseason and crazy regular-season schedule certainly weren't Brown's fault, either. Nor is it his fault that his hiring was the first major personnel decision by prince regent Jim Buss, who doesn't command fanbase trust. Brown stepped into some difficult circumstances when he took the job, and any evaluation of his coaching performance should take it all into account.
But this is Lakerdom, where people want winners, not excuses. And the Lakers' reprehensible showings in Games Five and Six of their first-round series against the Denver Nuggets have seemed to confirm what skeptics feared about Mike Brown: in the crucible of the playoffs he gets easily outmaneuvered by opposing coaches and fails to make the most of elite talent. It doesn't help that he arrived with the reputation of a defensive whiz, yet failed to mold the Lakers' team D into anything better than barely acceptable. In fact, the Laker defense got worse as the season went along and might not be done worsening. The Nuggets' attack ripped off 1.13 points per possession in Game Three. Over the past six quarters, starting at halftime of Game Five, the Nuggets have averaged 1.19 points per trip.
Mike Brown's continued employment might depend on his ability to reverse this trend. No one outside of the Buss family and maybe Mitch Kupchak knows whether the team will fire Brown if he loses Game Seven on Saturday night, but it sure feels plausible. Magic Johnson is betting that a Laker loss will lead to Brown's termination. Magic no longer owns any part of the team and isn't actively involved in Laker management, but as Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times points out, he's still on the payroll as a vice president and he's close to the Buss family. Magic's warning shot couldn't have helped Brown sleep soundly last night.
He and his staff have several problems to solve if they want to live to see Oklahoma City. Foremost is Andrew Bynum. Over the course of six games he's gone from looking like a guy who could lead you to the title to an unmotivated, floor-bound zombie. Long gone is the Bynum who terrorized the Nugs in Games One and Two. Ever since his overblown but still stupid remarks about the easiness of closeout games, what we've seen instead is a player who's not moving or reacting well on defense nor finishing aggressively with the ball. A major issue is that Bynum has not figured out how to react to the double-teams George Karl is throwing his way.
Fixing one oddball big man would be hard enough, but Brown has another on his hands. Pau Gasol's Game Six (three points on 1-for-10 shooting, three boards) was an endless buffet of suck. The once-beautiful synergy between him and Bynum has evaporated. When the ball goes into Pau on the blocks, it stops. Everything stops. Even against overmatched defenders like Al Harrington, Pau has become inert, seemingly unable to access his inventory of low-post twists and turns. Brown needs to get Pau on the move. Feed him the ball on cuts or slip-screens, and let him rediscover his intuitive playmaking impulse.
On defense as well the Lakers have to change up. Ty Lawson and Andre Miller have been slicing into the lane at will, forcing bad rotations and finding open teammates on the baseline and on dives to the rim. Bynum's issues we've discussed. Ramon Sessions too has put his defensive shortcomings on display and probably can't be relied on to check Lawson or Miller for any significant stretch. As he always does in Game Sevens, Kobe Bryant will surely take on critical defensive responsibilities tonight, as will the unsuspended Metta World Peace. MWP is a great option to stick on Miller, who relies more on strength and positioning than speed or lateral quickness. In Game Six the Lakers had success stripping Miller on the dribble, suggesting Metta, with his peerlessly strong hands, will have a shot at a nice steals total. He'll also spend some time on Danilo Gallinari, who's found his groove lately against Devin Ebanks.
If the Lakers can shore up their point-guard D it should help another increasingly unsexy problem: their three-point defense. Through five games the Nugs mostly failed to knock down the open three-point looks they were given. That changed in Game Sixth, when they made 10 of 20. As elimination-game strategies go, "hoping they miss" won't play, so Brown has to restore floor balance to the D and remind weakside bros not to stray from their marks. Those bad habits were what led to the Lakers' slaughter in Dallas last spring and it's still too soon for anyone to feel nostalgic.
Historically home teams dominate in first-round Game Sevens. It's possible the Lakers will wake up from their fugue state, beat Denver senseless in the first half and drain the drama from the evening. Nobody thinks that'll happen, though. Call it a 20 percent probability the Lakers have completely checked out on the season and get destroyed, 2008 Finals style, and an 80 percent likelihood of a tight, dramatic contest. Fishmore Prediction: Brown and his men have solved just enough of their problems to survive the night (only to fly to their dooms in OKC).
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