28 October 2018

Out-think the Opposition!

The Los Angeles Lakers are not favored to win the NBA Championship this year. Indeed at best, according to experts’ predictions, they would barely make the playoffs. Yes, they have LeBron James, arguably the best basketball player on the planet at the moment, but he just makes the Lakers a single superstar team. LeBron is surrounded by highly talented but inexperienced youngsters and a few veterans. It’s just not enough.

And yet, with LeBron in the team there’s this sense that the unthinkable could happen. After losing to Portland 119-128 in the season opener and to Houston 115-124 at home, reality probably dawned. Sure, it’s a long season. Sure this is a new team with a new leader. Still.  

To make matters worse, Rojan Rondo and Brandon Ingram got involved in a spat and were suspended for a couple of games.  And when the Lakers trailed the San Antonio Spurs by almost a dozen points midway into the first quarter, the 2018-19 season seemed just a continuation of the dismal years.  

My friend Tony Courseault, an astute student of the game and a great Lakers fan (like myself) was obviously not thrilled: ‘Getting killed. LeBron playing with little boys.’

Things have got so bad with that team that we have got used to celebrating small gains. Tony texted: ‘LeBron just took over on defense and got his team some easy fast-breaks’.

He added, ‘Josh Hart’ and then ‘Ball has two 3’s.’  That’s Lonzo Ball by the way.

‘What of Josh Hart? I asked. The answer, ‘Sorry, looked nice.’ And then, ’40-26, you don’t have to ask who’s winning.’  

I checked the box score and noted, ‘LeBron hasn’t scored yet!’ 

Tony was crisp in his response: ‘On bench. Passing before. Rebounding. Being the pg (point guard). Scoring is nothing.’

Well, the play-by-play of that game shows how the Lakers fought back. Tony texted, ‘close now’. I asked ‘all due to…?’ obviously suggesting ‘LeBron James.’

He would later point out that LeBron set the time with fast-breaks and great ball-movement. LeBron, Tony said, insisted on players staying disciplined on their spots on the floor. As for him not scoring, Tony said, ‘Much ado about nothing. All the greats have had slow starts, or bad shooting games. The main thing is he's setting the tone consistently for this game.’

That he did. The Lakers tied the game and sent it to overtime. LeBron made a poor decision at the end and the Lakers lost 142-143.  That’s a 0-3 start.  

Prior to the game, in our own private ‘pre-game show’ I suggested that not having Rondo and Ingram would make it possible for Kyle Kuzma to have a big game. Kuzma had 37 points, the slow start notwithstanding LeBron scored 32 with 14 assists and 8 rebounds.

Neither of us were disappointed by the final result. Tony put it in a nutshell: ‘Blessing to have Ingram and Rondo out. Young guns were fantastic tonight. LeBron settled them down and got them into a recognizable flow offensively and better communication defensively.  And Luke made all the great and timely substitutions. My pet peeve is not understanding or agreeing with coaches rotations, like Donovan in OKC [Thunder], but I completely was in sync with Luke tonight.’ [That’s Luke Walton, the Lakers coach].’

Our discussion moved to the great thinkers among NBA players. Tony listed: ‘Magic. LeBron. Kareem. MJ. Isiah. Bird. Dennis Johnson.  Shaq. Jason Kidd. Pippen. Wade. Pierce. Reggie Miller. Rondo. Chris Paul. Mark Jackson.’

‘Not Kobe?’

‘Super smart, out thought himself to much. Too many times you'd watch Kobe about to take a bad shot, and shout at the tv...NOOOO! Same thing anywhere.  Sportsbar. Ppl in unison.  At home with friends. At a party.  Anywhere. Says a lot.’  

He added other names and we talked about other things. Later, he texted, ‘Top Twitter trending topic: Lakers fans saying Kobe would have made the last two FTs that LeBron missed.’ 

‘Kobe wouldn't have got THIS team out of the first quarter hole,’ I observed. Tony agreed. 

The whole thing got me thinking about thinking. Especially in the middle of things, and more so when the middle is a big hole!  The greats in any team sport however weak the team may be, never stop thinking. They know to adjust. They know to get their teammates to adjust. They know how to focus and how to get others to focus. They break up things into manageable sizes. They are relentless.  

As I write, the Lakers have just got their first W for the season, admittedly against the lowly Phoenix Suns (131-113).  It might be another painful season for my friend Tony and I, but we will enjoy LeBron’s impact on the young Lakers team, I’m sure. In the very least, LeBron will teach us a few things about the importance of thinking, a prerequisite to outthinking the opposition, naturally.