I remain utterly convinced that no single factor — not Dirk Nowitzki in all of his clutch glory, not Jason Terry’s offensive contributions, not Corey Brewer’s stint as a difference-maker, or any other — made more of a profound impact on the result of Game 1 than the defensive play of Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood.
Chandler’s negation of Andrew Bynum was a tremendous accomplishment in itself. After all, rebuking a potential double-double does a lot for Dallas’ bottom line, and the efficiency with which Bynum typically operates would have tipped the scales considerably in L.A.’s favor. But more important than any direct impact that Chandler (and Haywood, to give credit where credit’s due) could provide was a subtle nudge.
The Lakers are never lacking in ability. They have production on all fronts, a fully functional defense, leadership, strong coaching, bench production, size, length, the whole shebang. L.A. very much has it all, and their two straight titles did not come by coincidence. Yet along with their considerable ability comes a bit of pride and a bit of laziness, and though it’s difficult for opposing teams to harness those weaknesses against the Lakers on a whim, it’s more than a bit helpful when L.A. does manage to turn against itself. It’s hard to say that the Lakers were their own worst enemy or somesuch in Game 1, but at times, they certainly worked to their own disadvantage. Once Chandler managed to defend Bynum successfully in the post and Gasol floated outward a bit, the Laker guards didn’t make the continued effort to establish an offensive rhythm through the two true conduits of the triangle. Having a post-centered offense requires much more diligence than most understand, and Game 1 was a perfect example of what can happen when a fully capable team shifts away from its very design.
L.A. still competed. They nearly won, too, because frankly, they have the talent to do so. Kobe Bryant played some sensational basketball, and connected on jumper after jumper with Maverick defenders in his face. He also showcased his abilities as a short-term fix when the Lakers needed a long-term solution; Bryant can keep the offense afloat all on his own, but without Bynum and Gasol attacking the interior, drawing fouls, and luring double teams, the Lakers are imminently beatable. Sometimes all it takes is the slightest nudge — a few stops or a few turnovers — to force Bryant and his teammates into a misread. Kobe becomes a bit too focal in the Laker offense, the player movement begins to stagnate, and the activity on the offensive glass comes to a halt. It’s as much Bryant’s fault as it is any other Laker’s, but L.A.’s occasional stagnation is a real, recurring problem. In Game 1, that problem was triggered by Tyson Chandler’s defense.
The Lakers will return tonight with attempts to run their offense as usual, and things will almost certainly be different than they were in Game 1. Still, L.A. remains vulnerable to the very same nudge. Perhaps Chandler can repeat his performance and lock down the low post. Maybe the Mavs will continue to release off of Ron Artest at times, and attempt to disrupt the Laker offense through him. Maybe Shawn Marion can force Bryant into not only missing, but taking tough shots that throw the Lakers out of their desired rhythm.
Then again, perhaps even with a successful push from the triangle, Kobe will bounce back to drop 40 and completely demolish everything that the Mavs could even hope to accomplish. All remain possibilities, but none should change the priority of testing the Lakers’ patience.