LOS ANGELES – The Staples Center had already half emptied, the A-listers handing over their valet tickets, everyone streaming toward the exits, little J.J. Barea(notes) dribbling out the final seconds of this improbable victory by the Dallas Mavericks. And here came Ron Artest(notes) looking for blood.
The NBA handed Artest its citizenship award on this same floor one week ago, not that he has much use for it now. Mr. Citizenship raked his right arm across Barea's head, missing the ball by, oh, 2 feet, and catching all face. Barea crumbled in half and the officials ejected Artest, who barely broke stride, taking the opportunity to beat the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers to the showers.
This wasn't about sending a message to the Mavericks. This was an act of frustration, a lesser opponent coming unhinged, a champion cracking.
The Lakers have been pushed to the edge, or to Dallas anyway. They will fly to Texas, down 2-0, having lost twice on their own floor, facing what Derek Fisher(notes) called an "unfamiliar" challenge. They surrendered a 16-point lead in the series' opener, and even that was easier for them to stomach than their 93-81 beating in Game 2. Effort and overconfidence weren't the problems on this night.
For the Lakers, that's the hardest truth to swallow. As Kobe Bryant(notes) strode out of the arena late Wednesday, dressed in a charcoal suit and black tie, wife at his side, even he had to be wondering the obvious.
Maybe these Lakers just aren't that good.
Not since they lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals have the Lakers looked this overmatched. Pau Gasol(notes) isn't the best big man on the floor, or even in his own family. The Lakers' bench doesn't extend past Lamar Odom(notes) while the Mavericks are running at least 10 deep. Most damning: Their defense, which looked so formidable for a month after the All-Star break, has been splintered by the Mavs.
"This team is cutting us up," Bynum said, "and we're not doing anything about it."
Bynum said a few other things, most notably that the Lakers are struggling with "trust issues."
"I mean I think it's quite obvious to anybody watching the game," Bynum said. "Hesitation on passes, defensively not being there for your teammate because he wasn't there for you before."
All dynasties eventually crumble, and the first cracks usually come from within. Sometimes it's an injury. Sometimes the team has grown too old. Or, as has been the case with the Lakers in the past, maybe they're just too tired to get along anymore.
These Lakers haven't looked formidable for a month. The first warning sign came when they lost five straight games in the final two weeks of the regular season. Then they lost their playoff opener at home against the New Orleans Hornets, the weakest team in the Western Conference bracket. Now this.
"We've been playing with fire for the last three years, dropping games on our home floor," Bryant said. "We finally got what we deserved."
Everyone has been too swept up with the Lakers' past accomplishments to notice their obvious flaws. One Western Conference scout sounded this warning the week before the playoffs began: "They can be beaten this year because their bench isn't very good and they don't have enough dependable shooters around Kobe and their big guys."
Somehow Dirk Nowitzki(notes) has emerged in this series with the better supporting cast, and that points to Gasol's ongoing struggles. Gasol played hard on Wednesday. He just didn't play well. He missed three free throws, had one shot blocked from behind by DeShawn Stevenson(notes), and after he missed an open jump shot, the crowd started booing him – a first in his four seasons in L.A.
"I wish I could be more productive," Gasol said. "I wish I could be more effective. …But I'm trying my best."
Kobe had his own moments. He blew an open layup on the break and threw a pass off the side of the backboard, causing Phil Jackson to wonder if there were "gremlins out there."
"Obviously, you've got to be worried," Jackson said, presumably about his team's performance and not the gremlins.
Most concerning to Jackson: L.A.'s defense. The Lakers haven't had an answer for Nowitzki, but who does? Stopping Dirk is the least of their concerns when they also can't corral Barea. At times, Barea has looked like Chris Paul(notes), repeatedly carving up the Lakers off pick-and-rolls.
Artest came up with his own solution: With the game already decided, he clotheslined the Mavs' diminutive guard. Now, the Lakers head to Dallas with Artest suspended for Friday's Game 3.
Never have the Lakers had their resolve tested more. Perhaps Kobe can still pull something special from within, but who's going to help him? The Lakers admit this is new territory for them. Only three teams in NBA history have won a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games at home.
"You couldn't expect this to be easy," Kobe reminded everyone. "If you want to make history, you have to do historic things."
Considering how dark their future looks, the champs might as well cling to the past. Down 2-0, flying to Dallas for the next two games, the Lakers didn't need Artest to club someone to show them the obvious. They could already see the cracks.