LOS ANGELES – The shot left Kobe Bryant's(notes) fingertips, and that was about the time Jason Kidd(notes) glanced away. He had scrambled off a screen to try to get a hand in Bryant's face, only to arrive a step too late. The ball was in the air, the fate of Kidd's Dallas Mavericks resting on its arc toward the basket.
"I didn't look," Kidd said later. "I was just going to listen to the crowd."
What Kidd heard is the same painful bleating that's become a familiar refrain to those who frequent the Staples Center this NBA season: Nearly 19,000 fans groaning at once, each of them thinking the same tortured thought:
By the time Kidd looked up, the ball was harmlessly skipping off the back of the rim, turning this home of champions into a lifeless shell. Make no mistake: The Los Angeles Lakers didn't lose the opening game of the Western Conference semifinal series with the Mavericks because of Bryant's last-second miss … or his botched handoff with Pau Gasol(notes) … or Bryant's errant pass … or Gasol's clumsy foul on Dirk Nowitzki(notes). Those mishaps contributed to the Lakers' demise, but they also were far easier to accept than the damning truth about Monday night:
Once again, the Lakers couldn't swallow their hubris long enough to treat a playoff game with the urgency it demands. Put more simply: Perhaps they should start caring again.
"I'm concerned," Bryant said. "This team can beat us. It's clear."
It's also clear that the Lakers want to make sure nothing comes easy to them in these playoffs. They prefer to live (and die) dangerously. Fifteen days after punting their postseason opener to the New Orleans Hornets – a loss, they vowed, that had taught them an important lesson – the Lakers kicked a 16-point lead in Monday's second half. Nearly all of the advantage was surrendered in the first 4½ minutes after the Lakers built it, the surest sign yet they can't stand their own prosperity. They stopped defending. They stopped passing. They relaxed.
"I just felt like we gave it away," Phil Jackson said, and he was referring to the game as much as the lead.
The Lakers gave away something else, too. A loss like this chips away at their mystique, adding to a month's worth of evidence that there's less reason for opponents to fear them. Unlike the Hornets, the Mavericks didn't sound surprised to have beaten the two-time defending champs. If they didn't already believe they could win this series, they should now.
These Mavericks are deeper than their previous teams. Time will tell whether they're also tougher, but nights like Monday should only swell their confidence. The Mavs started to unravel at the end of the first half, needlessly giving up four points in the final .7 seconds after Jason Terry(notes) fouled Lamar Odom(notes) on a 40-foot heave and Nowitzki elbowed Ron Artest(notes) in the back of the head on the final free throw. After opening the second half with three straight turnovers, they looked like the same old folding Mavs from years past.
Dallas, however, took something from its first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers. In Game 4, the Mavs suffered one of the worst collapses in playoff history, giving up a 23-point lead in the final 13 minutes. They returned to Dallas and won Game 5, then closed out the Blazers two nights after nearly blowing another big lead.
The lesson: Keep playing.
"In a playoff series there are going to be some tough losses, tough plays, and you have to recover," Nowitzki said.
Given the Mavericks' recent history of playoff failure, Nowitzki should be an expert in the art of recovery. Yet he also had never previously faced Kobe and the Lakers in the postseason, allowing him to enter this series with a clear mind. When Kobe coolly buried a pull-up jump shot to give the Lakers a three-point cushion with a minute left, Nowitzki followed by barreling into the lane and floating in his own tough shot.
More than anything, Monday should have showed the Lakers that their margin for error has shrunk considerably from years past. This season's Western Conference playoffs have become a punch-for-punch slugfest where nobody fears anybody. If the Lakers survive this series with Dallas, they'll meet either a Memphis Grizzlies or Oklahoma City Thunder team feeling just as emboldened. After the Grizzlies eliminated his top-seeded San Antonio Spurs last week, Gregg Popovich questioned whether the loss should even be considered an upset.
"Most would probably think that," Popovich said, "but they don't understand the West. All of us basically split with each other. We are all pretty darn close to each other."
The Lakers should have realized the same by now. Yes, they can lose this series. They're also capable of righting it as quickly as they did their series with the Hornets. And this, too, is what makes them so maddening. Even in their worst moments, you can't dismiss these Lakers.
Of course, you don't want to hug them, either. They're too talented for their own good and too stubborn to realize how to use those talents. Once again, the Lakers didn't spend enough time trying to work the ball inside to Bynum and Gasol. Bryant took 29 shots for his 36 points, and when someone questioned whether that contributed to the discrepancy, he sniffed, "It had nothing to do with me."
Bryant placed the blame on the Lakers' reserves, but that didn't explain everything. When the Mavs quickly forced their way back into the game midway through the third quarter, L.A.'s starters were still on the floor.
Even after a series of bumbling mistakes in the final minute, Kobe still had one final chance to win the game. His shot went up. Kidd looked away. The crowd told him all he needed to know.
Once again, the Lakers got what they deserved.