King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The Lakers play a whole game against the Spurs -- diving for a loose ball and everything -- and the damnedest thing happens. They win.

By Salon Staff

Published May 10, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

The Lakers did something in their 105-81 drilling of the Spurs Sunday that they hadn't done in the first two games of the series, both Spurs wins: They played like they cared for all 48 minutes, rather than just in the third quarter.

ABC analyst Doc Rivers made note of this in the second half, and added, "I know everyone at home is saying, 'Well, if they can do it in Game 3, why didn't they do it in Game 1 and 2?'"

As it happens I had been wondering that very thing since the opening minutes, so I leaned in close to listen to Rivers' theory, but he said no more on the subject.

I suppose it's hopelessly naive of me but I really do wonder why the Lakers sleepwalk through so much of so many games. The usual explanation is that they have too many superstars, they're complacent, used to being able to coast to victory often enough in the regular season. By contrast the superstar-less Spurs -- Tim Duncan doesn't count as one because he doesn't act like one -- are hungrier and know what it takes to win.

I don't buy it.

When the Lakers-Spurs series started, Karl Malone had played in 178 playoff games -- more than two regular seasons' worth of ballgames -- without winning a title. Gary Payton had played in 106 without earning a ring. They both took massive pay cuts, remember, to go to Los Angeles and win a championship. Malone is 40 and Payton's 35. Time's running out. If anyone's hungry for a title, it ought to be these guys.

And if they don't "know what it takes" because they haven't won one -- a dubious thesis -- Shaquille O'Neal (142 playoff games) and Kobe Bryant (103) have each won three championships and ought to able to set them straight. But really, who would know better what's required to win in the playoffs than a guy like Malone, a smart man who's been to the postseason in each of his 19 seasons, and has had to watch someone else raise the trophy every time so far?

Part of what's needed is sustained effort, especially when you're playing the Spurs, who pretty much hustle and press all the time. One of the clichés about the defending champs is that they dive for loose balls, a hallmark of hardworking, hustling teams. You've gotta love these guys, the thinking goes, they dive for loose balls.

Well, on Sunday, the Lakers, who never dive for loose balls, dived for a loose ball in the first quarter. It was like some kind of totemic hustle ceremony, because it wasn't just the Lakers diving. Oh no, my friends! It was Kobe Bryant diving-uh! And then on the same play -- yes my friends the very same play-uh! -- it was Shaquille O'Neal-uh, diving for the very same loose ball, Lord!

And even though he committed a foul-uh, yes, Lord, Shaq committed a foul all right but the multitudes rose in rejoicing-uh! The people knew that the Lakers were saved-uh, the Lakers were saved from the sin of sloth, Lord! The Lakers were anointed with floor burns-uh, and sanctified by sweat, and they did say, "Get behind me, Spurs!"

During Saturday's Kings-Timberwolves game, won by Minnesota to even the series at 1-1, Trenton Hassell of the Timberwolves dived spectacularly and unsuccessfully into the crowd after a loose ball. Bill Walton, working the game for ESPN and soon to be the centerpiece of this column's "Write Like Bill Walton Talks Contest," said, "I was taught to never dive for the ball, that if you were so far out of the play that you had to dive for it, just let it go and get it back the next time."

It's an interesting thought. I've never heard it before, but since the idea came from John Wooden, it's worth taking seriously. I'd love to see a sabermetric-style cost-benefit analysis of diving for loose balls. Do you save enough possessions by diving to make it worth the risk of injury, or even of just being out of the play for a few moments if the other team ends up with the ball?

And if it's not worth it to dive in those terms, is it wise to do it now and then anyway, especially early, just to send a message -- to the other team, to the fans, to yourself, to whoever needs to hear it -- that your head's in the game, that you're going to hustle on this day?

"That's exactly what the Lakers have to do," ABC's Al Michaels said after Bryant and O'Neal hit the deck, "the two super-superstars each going to the wood." The Lakers managed to pound the Spurs without any more diving, but with lots of pushing the ball, good shooting and active defense. So was diving really what they needed to do? Or is flying after a loose ball nothing more than a showy play that impresses the rubes in the stands and on press row?

This column is proud to be able to furnish answers, not just questions, so here's the answer to those last two: I don't know.

I wrote the Lakers off after the Spurs beat them twice because we typists always think that whatever's happening now is going to keep happening. If the Lakers are going to play 48 minutes a night, though, I'm going to have to go back to my earlier statement that if they're healthy they're the team to beat.

But I'll believe they're going to play 48 minutes a night when I see it, and I don't think I'm going to see it. I just can't figure out why not.

Previous column: Baseball's latest "New Coke"

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