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CONFERENCE FINALS / BILL PLASCHKE

Footloose

These aren't your 2001 or 2002 Lakers. This free-flowing L.A. band dances for fun, not just with the stars, and its infectiousness drives a joy ride that might be elusive but isn't quite like any before.

May 27, 2008|Bill Plaschke

SAN ANTONIO -- Before every Lakers game, this nut named Ronny Turiaf runs around near the bench shaking every teammate's hand.

He shakes every hand differently, a different finger wag or wrist motion for each player, and each player always remembers and responds.

By the time Turiaf finishes with the starters, he is standing at midcourt, music blaring, crowd cheering, at which point he dances alone back to the bench.

Not saunters, not jogs, but actually dances, different each night, swerving, shaking, unpredictable.

"It's all about feeling your flow," Turiaf says. "This team, we feel our flow, and we follow it."

You know, maybe that's it.

Maybe that's why this postseason feels so different from every other postseason since Phil Jackson's first title here eight years ago.

Maybe that's why these mostly ordinary Lakers are so much more fun than those star-studded Lakers.

They're not too big to do funny handshakes. They're not too proud to dance silly dances.

They're able to feel their flow, because it's still their flow, not some outside, uncontrollable stream fueled by absurd pressures and unreasonable expectations.

Maybe that's why this spring feels like such a gift.

Yeah, you know, a gift.

An unexpected present slowly unwrapped to reveal constant surprises, some good, some lousy, but all of them energizing in their drama.

Comebacks and collapses, Kobe Bryant banging greatness or buying dinner, Sasha Vujacic's stalk and Pau Gasol's stork, Jordan Farmar's cockiness and Derek Fisher's calm.

And each of them, every night, talking to Lamar Odom as if he were a skittish child at the end of his first long car ride, stay calm, stay focused, we're almost there, just one more game, just one more.

With each little triumph, these Lakers gesture and scream and pop their jerseys as if they just won a state high school championship.

With each failure, they acknowledge and accept their mistakes as if they were just cut from the junior varsity.

It's fun, it's unpredictable, it's real.

Since the innocence of that first Jackson title eight years ago, can you remember a great Lakers team being any those things?

In the final years of the Shaquille O'Neal regime, the team burdened with locker-room jealousies, even a couple of the championships felt like drudgery.

Next season, with Andrew Bynum returning to crowd the court while making the Lakers a certain championship favorite and target, there is a risk the place could turn sour again.

Which could make this spring a one-time wonder, you know?

If the Lakers win the championship, it might be one of the greatest in franchise history.

If they don't win, they will be painted not in failure or disgrace, but in the hopeful shades of a team whose journey is just beginning.

A gift, and enjoy it while you can.

"In past years, there was a certain sense that they weren't playing up to their potential," Jackson was saying of recent great Lakers teams. "This team, they're trying to play up to their potential, and they're doing it, and that makes it much more of a joy."

Joy, even Monday, a day after the Lakers suffered a blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs here to cut their lead in the Western Conference finals to two games to one.

During the media session, the reserves gathered at one end of the court and inexplicably began shooting left-handed jumpers.

Odom joined them to shoot free throws, but somebody shouted that it wasn't fair, that he was left-handed, so he shot one right-handed.

Swish. Smile. Shrug.

"In the past, Shaquille O'Neal was the entertainer, and the rest of us just came and did our jobs and left," Fisher said. "Today, we have six or seven clowns on this team, there's always something to laugh about, something to joke about."

And then when things turn serious, everyone listens.

After Sunday night's 103-84 loss, the Lakers held another team dinner, the sort of thing that Bryant rarely attended back in previous championship years.

Because Odom had shot two for 11 with five turnovers in the loss, Fisher and Bryant pulled him aside for a chat.

"We tried to explain to him how much he'll appreciate things because he's experienced all he can experience," Fisher said. "In other years here, there's been very little suspense, but this year . . . it's a certain badge of honor, all of us having to dig deep for things."

Digging deep, this team that last fall didn't even possess a shovel.

"I thought I'd be in Chicago," Bryant acknowledged.

Bryant was gone. Fisher was stuck. Odom was confused. Gasol was in Memphis. Sasha was . . . did anybody even know who Sasha was?

And now, six wins from a championship?

At the end of Monday's media session, Jackson walked onto the court with his stately cane and ordered the remaining players into the locker room.

Odom was still shooting free throws, so Jackson pulled the cane up to his ear and feigned shooting at him.

Odom threw out his hands and covered his heart as if hit.

Everyone laughed, millionaires in a child's game, a springtime of wonder, a gift.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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