Earlier this season, it was a fun parlor game to come up with character comparisons and literary metaphors to describe the fickle nature of the Los Angeles Lakers state of mind.
They were consistently inconsistent: world-beaters one game, dogs the next. We called them everything from “Jekyll and Hyde” to “Harvey Dent”, suggesting they were more hot-and-cold than Katy Perry, harder to get a read on than Sybil.
If these playoffs have taught us anything, it is that maybe that element of the team remains, but that it serves them well. Perhaps we confused their chameleon nature as a weakness when it really is a strength. They seem to be able to adjust and adapt to any opponent, any situation, and beat you any way you want to play.
When faced with the grind-it-out execution of the Utah Jazz, they played efficient offense, protected the ball, and took advantage of a clear mismatch for their star, Kobe Bryant.
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When dealing with the raw athleticism and youthful exuberance of the Oklahoma City Thunder, they recognized that their veteran experience would carry them in close games, and trusted themselves to execute the triple-post against a smaller frontline. It may have taken them several games to recognize where these advantages lay, but ultimately the Thunder woke them up and caused them to shape-shift to meet the demands their athleticism presented.
And now, facing Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals, they have fully embraced the run-and-gun offensive firefight that the Suns favour best. They have morphed yet again, only now they are not switching between personality types that are either good or bad, but rather between styles of play that meet whatever their opponent throws at them.
If the Suns are willing to leave Ron Artest open for corner threes, the Lakers will find him there and put him in a position to make big shots (to the tune of 15 first half points in Wednesday’s Game 2).
If Phoenix wants to collapse on Kobe Bryant and force him to give up the ball, Bryant will find open teammates either for clean spot-up looks or cutting drives to the basket. In fact, Bryant did this so successfully in Game 2 that he posted a career-playoff high of 13 assists.
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If Alvin Gentry’s team would rather use a zone to dare Pau Gasol to step up and perform in big moments than leave the game in Bryant’s hands, the Spaniard seems more than happy to answer that challenge. It was Gasol, not his superstar teammate, that was the hero of Game 2: he put in 14 of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter.
If Amare Stoudemire wishes to try and engage in trash talk and mind games with Lamar Odom, Odom can respond by posting his second consecutive outstanding all-around game, dropping 17 points and 11 rebounds in the process.
Much like their rivals from Boston, these Lakers have used the 2010 Playoffs as an opportunity to grow, in confidence and in execution, with every passing game.
Standing back and trying to analyze how they will beat you in now the NBA’s version of a Rorschach test – do you see a team lead by the game’s best frontcourt that can score at will at the rim, or do they look like a team driven by the NBA’s best closer and most ruthless individual competitor, or perhaps do you see a team whose greatest strength is its flexibility and dexterity in terms of lineups and styles of play?
However you analyze them, however you want to try to go about explaining their play over the last six playoff games, there doesn’t seem to be too many wrong answers. Not when they shoot 57 percent of the floor, as they did Wednesday, and not when they score 252 points in just two games.
Maybe Mr. Hyde will show his face against. Perhaps they will revert to the inconsistent team we saw for long stretches between the All-Star break and the start of these playoffs. Stranger things have happened certainly, and Game 2 did see Phoenix put forth a markedly improved effort.
Jason Richardson was deadly, posting 27 points, and Steve Nash was his ever-unselfish self as he set up 15 assists. Even the ageless Grant Hill had a monster game, contributing 23 points (including 14 in the third quarter) as well as excellent defense. If those pieces remain in place there is no reason Phoenix can’t win a game at home come Sunday.
But to expect them to win the series outright seems like a bit much to ask when the Lakers look this versatile in how they can beat you, and this dominant in their execution.
The 2010 Lakers may be a shape-shifter and a Chameleon – but who says that has to be a bad thing?