When all was said and done last year, it was the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers waging their eternal war against each other and the Lakers coming out on top in seven games. For much of this season, it seemed like the Celtics and Lakers were on a collision course to meet for the third time in four years.
No one quite believed in the Heat, Bulls or Magic throughout the season (although the Bulls have shown they can do more than hang around) in the East. And nobody wants to see the Spurs muddle up another NBA Finals.
So the Lakers and Celtics remained the darlings of the NBA... only they are not anymore.
In fact, the Lakers and Celtics could very well be limping into the postseason beginning this weekend.
Boston's problems are well-documented and have been ongoing. But the Lakers troubles seem to have sprung out of nowhere.
Los Angeles has been up and down all year in defending its title, raising concern levels and then re-assuring the doubters that everything will be OK with a torrid run, only to go into hibernation again. The Lakers, like the Celtics, are the veteran type of team that might be able to get away with it. But the fact they have been so inconsistent have some thinking the Lakers might be in trouble.
The inconsistency may have very well started with the team's Oscar Road Trip before the All-Star Break. The Lakers, after losing four of their previous seven games, won the first four games of the trip before dropping three straight heading into the All-Star Break, including losses to Charlotte and Cleveland. Los Angeles then sped out of the break with an 8-game winning streak. After a loss to Miami, it was followed by a 9-game win streak. That is 17 of the last 18 games.
But since then, the Lakers have lost five in a row, including Sunday night's defeat to the Thunder.
Los Angeles went from potentially catching San Antonio for the best record in the league to fighting off Dallas and Oklahoma City to remain the two seed. The Lakers, like the Celtics last year, may not be a team that needs to have home court advantage throughout the postseason, but it certainly does not hurt. Los Angeles likely needs to win both of its two remaining games -- vs. San Antonio and at Sacramento -- to wrap up the second seed in the West.
Phil Jackson is blaming a lack of urgency in the Lakers' uninspired play of late. As he tells Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times, Jackson believes the Lakers released the gas pedal off that torrid pace after losing to Denver on April 3 and falling two games behind the Spurs for the top spot in the West.
Sunday's loss to Oklahoma City seemed to be a point of more concern than usual. The Thunder were just two games behind the Lakers in the loss column entering the game and certainly were going to be playing hard in the game trying to rise up out of the fourth spot in the West. Oklahoma City took the game to Los Angeles early and often, posting a 130.7 offensive rating and forcing 10 Lakers turnovers (many coming at a key time in the fourth quarter when the game was still close).
Los Angeles is giving up an average of 106.3 points per 100 possessions during this five-game stretch, well above the 6th-best 104.4 the team usually concedes.
Is it something to be truly concerned about? Maybe. Maybe not.
Like Boston, Los Angeles has some aging bodies to worry about. The Lakers have shown they can be in rhythm and play together, so dialing back and resting might not be a bad thing. But on the other hand, this is a different season with different challenges. Both the competition in the East and the West has gotten better.
The Lakers may not be able to cruise into the Finals like they did last year. And that might make this five-game losing streak even more costly.
Photo Courtesy of James Boyd/Flickr/Photoree