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NBA PREVIEW / LAKERS PREVIEW

More firepower to them

Lakers' flameout against Celtics in Game 6 of Finals has instilled in them a burning ambition to make things right this season. With a reloaded roster, it's certainly possible, but they'll also have a target on their backs.

October 28, 2008|Mike Bresnahan | Bresnahan is a Times staff writer.

Somehow, 133 days later, the flames still flicker inside Kobe Bryant.

His first Olympic gold medal created an immeasurable degree of serenity for one of the league's top competitors, but it was only diversionary, the type of thing to be reflected upon throughout a lifetime but not enough to completely break away from what happened last June.

Celtics 131, Lakers 92. Hello, motivation.

Bryant and the Lakers return to action in a season opener tonight against Portland at Staples Center. If they arrive with chips on their shoulders, it's because of four monthsof heavy mental lifting after a Game 6 Finals flop and an embarrassing end to the pursuit of the franchise's 15th NBA title.

The Lakers can already find themselves anointed the 2009 champions on magazine covers, sports websites and Las Vegas tote boards, but Bryant doesn't seem impressed by a paper championship.

He spoke frankly when asked if the potential and depth of the present-day Lakers could be compared to the three championship teams earlier this decade.

"No it's not a fair comparison at all," he said. "Talent-wise, we probably have more talent on this team, but what we had on that team was inner toughness. That's something that we have to prove still.

"Boston obviously was a big challenge, a test for us that we failed. But we're going to be getting better at it. The team that we had in the past, that was just a tough, tough team. That came through experience. That came through trial and error. Hopefully we can get there soon."

The Lakers certainly have the ability to do it.

Bryant is back after winning his first MVP award, Pau Gasol looks efficient and comfortable in his new power forward position, and Andrew Bynum is quickly rounding into basketball form after off-season knee surgery.

The one major bonfire in training camp was doused when Lamar Odom eventually accepted his relegation to a second unit that will be among the league's best.

And yet, the expectations are being beaten out of the team by Coach Phil Jackson, who returns for a fourth season in his second tour with the Lakers.

Days of rest were few and far between this month. Tired legs and weary mind-sets were all but shrugged off, if not ignored, by Jackson.

"I think this is the hardest I've worked guys in preseason in the re-emergence of my tenure here," Jackson said. "I think they understand that there's a serious challenge out to them from me, about going into the season with dedication.

"There's a sense of, 'Wow, we had a great year last year' or that type of thing. My estimation is we had a great finish to the season, but we didn't end the season on a high note. We ended it on a low note and that's something you have to get out of your system in training camp."

The Western Conference looks as formidable as last season, when the Lakers' 57-25 record was enough to win the tightest conference race since the league moved to a 16-team playoff format in 1984. (Golden State failed to make the cut last season despite a 48-34 record, the best ever for a non-playoff team.)

New Orleans will have MVP runner-up Chris Paul and new sixth man James Posey, who was pried away from the Celtics.

Houston plucked Ron Artest from Sacramento, adding him to a potentially potent lineup with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.

Utah will again be scrappy, San Antonio will again be a bunch of playoff-tested veterans, and up-and-coming Portland is one of the league's youngest teams.

Phoenix and Dallas might take a step back because of age, but they can't be entirely discounted.

The Lakers are prepared for the West . . . they hope.

"It's going to be tougher this year than it was last year," Bryant said. "The West is a monster."

Few pundits picked the Lakers to win the conference last season, and some thought they wouldn't even make the playoffs. But the element of surprise will be lost this season, possibly making things more difficult.

Jackson began to acknowledge the Lakers were able to "come from right field" last season but switched to another sports analogy.

"We were able to come from the outside linebacker and blitz the quarterback last year and sneak up on everybody and win the Western Conference," he said.

"This year, I think everybody's prepared for us and we're going to have to go out there every night and prove it."

As such, Jackson began talking about championship aspirations with players at the end of practice.

One of his messages: Avoid overconfidence at any cost, a theme that seemed to be sinking in, for now.

"It's kind of easy to fall into that mind-set of 'We're the best' and we'll be able to go through the motions and beat people, and that's not the case," Bynum said. "We have the biggest target on our backs outside of Boston."

It has been almost 20 years since an NBA runner-up came back to win it all the next season, though the Lakers can look to the 1989 Detroit Pistons for further inspiration.

Bynum, who turned 21 Monday, could turn out to be a one-man source of inspiration for Lakers fans.

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