A Superpower In Twilight: Thoughts On The Lakers' Near-Certain Demise

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 18: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers waits for play to begin in the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May at Staples Center on May 18, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 99-96. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Following a brutal Game Four collapse, the curtain's about to fall on this version of the Lake Show. Tonight's Game Five could be ugly.

Strictly speaking, it's still too early to start shoveling dirt on the Lakers. The patient isn't quite dead. It's bleeding everywhere and missing an internal organ or two, but tonight in Oklahoma City it'll get wheeled out onto the court where it could, theoretically, summon some old Laker magic to force a Game Six back at Staples. Far more likely, the Thunder will calmly sign the DNR and lower the eyelids on the purple and gold. To believe otherwise requires ignoring both NBA playoff history and the specific history of the Lakers during the Kobe Bryant era.

Teams that find themselves in the Lakers' predicament, down three games to one in a playoff series, have a life expectancy measured in hours, not days. Forget storming back to win the series: in just eight out of 186 tries (or about four percent of the time) has an NBA team pulled off that trick. It's actually an immense challenge just surviving to see another game, especially if Game Five is on the road. Fewer than a quarter of the 125 teams who've hit the road down 3-1 have lived to see Game Six. Which makes sense... if you're trailing three games to one, you're probably the worse team to begin with. Needing to take three straight from a superior opponent is a daunting, demoralizing prospect made only more so by having to start the long march back behind enemy lines. Preparation suffers and the visiting team's gameday effort is often of the mail-it-in variety.

When it comes to slapping postage on a road elimination game and slinking into the offseason, Kobe Bryant's Lakers are the unquestioned masters. Here's how they've fared the last five times they've faced elimination away from Staples.

Year

Round

Game

Opponent

Result

2004

Finals

5

Pistons

Lost by 13

2006

1

7

Suns

Lost by 31

2007

1

5

Suns

Lost by 9

2008

Finals

6

Celtics

Lost by 39

2011

2

4

Mavericks

Lost by 36

That's five straight losses with an average margin of defeat of 25.6. (Not to mention, the final score of the 2004 Game Five loss to the Pistons was deceptively kind to the Lakers, who trailed by 23 after the third quarter and made the result look semi-respectable in garbage time.) This history of getting demolished in road elimination games isn't entirely Kobe's fault, of course, but it's a distinctive aspect of the teams he's starred on that when up against the wall, away from Staples' reassuring confines, they meekly submit.

(Last time the Lakers won a road elimination game? Almost a decade ago, in Game Seven of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, when they knocked off the Kings in Sacramento.)

I suppose there's encouragement to be mined from the Lake Show's competitiveness even while losing Games Two and Four to the Thunder. Since hammering the weary Lakers in Game One, the Thunder have been only the slightly better of the two teams. Over the last three games they've scored 1.066 points per possession to the Lakers' 1.062. That's not much of a difference! Squint hard enough in the right light and you can almost convince yourself these teams are about even.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, "about even" won't cut it anymore. If they're going to beat the Thunder three straight times (and twice in Oklahoma City), they need to be the significantly better side, and it's hard to see how that's going to happen unless the Thunder suffer a major injury or Russell Westbrook gets arrested for crimes against fashion. In the wake of their still-hard-to-believe Saturday night meltdown, the Lakers' team chemistry has turned poisonous. Kobe publicly scolded Pau Gasol for not being more assertive. Pau responded by observing that there were "a lot of mistakes" in the fourth quarter, not just his late turnover, an implied criticism of Kobe's 2-for-10 shooting in the final period.

They're both right. Pau looks increasingly unsure of his role in the Laker offense, and after his terrible series against the Mavericks last season, his drifting about in playoff games is getting old. He needs to trust his talents and playmaking instincts. He needs to make quick decisions with the ball. He needs to shoot decisively when a good look is available. As for Kobe, there's nothing new to say about his insistence on dominating the ball late in games. It's bad for the Lakers, everyone but him seems to know it, and it if it hasn't changed yet it probably never will. Even the great ones are imperfect.

But the civil war raging in Lakerdom between #TeamKobe and #TeamPau is, in a sense, missing the point. The main reason the Lakers lost was their inability to get defensive stops in the second half, and that's on the entire team. After scoring 1.02 points per possession in the first half, the Thunder ripped the Laker D apart to the tune of 1.39 per trip in the second. The Lakers had no solution for either Westbrook or Kevin Durant, neither of whom sat over the final 24 minutes. In that stretch Westbrook scored 23 points on 64 percent true shooting and Durant scored 19 on 86 percent true shooting. Those guys were just too hungry and too good, young talent sweeping aside the old. It was bound to happen eventually. The lockout and the death-march schedule that ensued made sure it happened this year.

The NBA has configured itself so that mini-dynasties like the Kobe-Pau Lakers can't hold power for long. The salary cap makes it difficult to surround highly paid stars with quality role players. The luxury tax makes it more so. And if you're good, you're always drafting from a pool of college talent already fished clean by worse teams. Consider: the Thunder have drafted in the top five three times in the last five years. The Lakers haven't had a top-five pick since James Worthy. It's not at all strange that the Thunder franchise has overtaken the Lakers on the court. It would be very strange if they hadn't.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Thanks to Neil Paine of Basketball Reference for the research on past playoff series.

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