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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Lakers' nice little effort puts them closer

May 29, 2008|Mark Heisler

SAN ANTONIO -- Aside from all the Lakers dreams and nightmares that came true here, this is where their teams have gone to find out who they were for the last 10 years.

This team just passed -- barely.

The Lakers let the Spurs back into the series in Game 3 and almost gave them back Game 4.

On the other hand, the Lakers came home with a win to go up, 3-1, in the Western Conference finals, although anyone who thinks it's over has missed a lot of Spurs history.

Not that the Lakers are exactly striking fear in peoples' hearts, or welcome to the Soft Parade.

After they were routed in Game 3, reviewers were on the harsh side, like the San Antonio Express-News' Buck Harvey, who called their front line Weenie (Pau Gasol), NSP for Not Scottie Pippen (Lamar Odom) and Space Cadet (Vladimir Radmanovic).

Not that this was heartless bashing, since those characterizations originated with the Lakers' coaching staff.

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has mentioned Gasol's "weenie shots" more than once and called Radmanovic "space cadet," not to mention "my favorite Martian."

As for NSP, it was team consultant Tex Winter who first noted that Kobe Bryant and Odom weren't Michael Jordan and Pippen since Lamar was so unlike Scottie.

Happily for the Lakers, if they aren't great, they can still win a title without having to play any other great teams, there being none around.

In the really good news for the Lakers, they're just warming up. With a healthy Andrew Bynum, as the Express-News' Harvey said last week, "the Lakers who are in San Antonio today will be remembered as a nice little team."

As happy as that prospect is for the Lakers, as the saying goes, the past is gone, the future only imagined and the present the only thing that's real.

This nice little team is 33-8 with Gasol in the lineup, a 66-win pace, although we're still finding out who they are as the tests get harder.

Everyone in Lakerdom was shocked -- shocked! -- in the Utah series to learn Gasol had problems against physical teams.

Here's a scoop: It didn't just start against Utah.

For all Gasol's skills, he has never been physical. Whether it was because European players are stereotyped, his toughness has been questioned -- or sneered at -- as when Reggie Evans, then in Denver, called him "that girl."

However, Gasol also isn't a center, although he has to play there now.

Nor had ever been expected to play Tim Duncan straight up as he has much of this series, helping limit him to 23 points a game and 44% from the floor.

With Bynum back, Gasol would move to power forward where he belongs and Odom would go to small forward . . . where we'll find out if he fits.

For 3 1/2 seasons before Gasol's arrival, Odom had been the Lakers' Hamlet, caught in a never-ending loop of meditation about his purpose. Once he even announced that if everyone was so insistent that he score 20 points, he'd go out and do it for the next few games.

Then he actually did -- for two games -- before returning to a more comfortable image of himself as an all-around player who filled up the stat sheet with rebounds and assists.

The bottom line was after 3 1/2 seasons as a Laker, he had never been above 15.9 points a game and 12.2 shot attempts.

However, in an unexpected bonus after Gasol arrived, everything seemed to fall into place for Odom.

Instead of wandering out on the floor, Odom began going hard to the basket, with or without the ball, which started whistling among himself, Gasol and Bryant.

As Jackson put it last week, Gasol's arrival took "decisions away from Lamar . . . 'Should I shoot this shot? Do I have to get active? Kobe is out of the game, I have to take on the role of scorer.' "

Unfortunately for Odom, after a great Game 2 (20 points, 12 rebounds), he had an awful Game 3 (seven points, shooting two for 11.) Vowing to be aggressive in Game 4, he struggled all night before scoring 16 hard-earned points.

"I remember, I won a championship [at Christ the King High School in New York] my sophomore year and kind of had the same kind of game the next year that I had here," said Odom.

"The No. 1 team in the nation [Father Rice], no losses -- I wound up missing like a five or six-footer for the game.

"So tonight it feels good to start off slow and keep my composure and make a play at the end and get a big one for our team."

In other words, it had been a while.

Odom is the Laker whom media people root for because he's so nice but, unfortunately, it's not about that and we'll have to see where this goes.

If a Bynum-Gasol-Odom front line sounds scary, it will leave the Lakers with one less shooter.

Inconsistent as Radmanovic is -- asked recently if he knows what to expect from him, Jackson said, "Absolutely not" -- he stays in the lineup because the mere threat of his outside shooting keeps the floor spread.

But that's an issue for another day.

Now one win from the Finals -- or one loss from a return trip to Lakers Hell and who knows what after that -- the present is challenging enough.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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