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MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

Lakers are giving more of the same, but better

This team is way better than last season's championship team, at least at this point. Gasol is playing well with a healthy Bynum and Bryant is on pace to win another MVP award.

December 23, 2009|Mark Heisler

They come, they see, they conquer . . . nightly.

Something has changed in Lakerdom, although it's so subtle, this season seems like last season with Ron Artest instead of Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom married to Khloe Kardashian instead of going home without being greeted by a camera crew, and Sasha Vujacic going out with Maria Sharapova instead of worrying about his slump.

As the Lakers are doing once more, last season's team was already leaving the West behind by its marquee Christmas matchup with some Eastern power.

Actually, there's one difference: This team is way better than that team, at least at this point, winners of 15 of the last 16 after Tuesday's 111-108 win over Oklahoma City, which distinguished itself by becoming one of the few teams to make it close.

A year ago, the Lakers' record stood in contrast to their play, which was sloppy and casual.

This led to brilliant repartee such as this after a 115-110 win last December over the Phoenix Suns, who dressed eight players but battled the Lakers to the end:

Reporter: "Do you feel you're saying the same stuff after every game -- we played OK, Pau [Gasol] was great but nobody else has stood out the last few games?"

Coach Phil Jackson, straight-faced: "You know, I thought Fish [Derek Fisher] played very well. Maybe I should mention that. His defense was solid. He made some steals. I like that."

Reporter: "But do you sense repetition in these games, as you talk about them afterward?"

Jackson, smiling: "Maybe I'll put it on tape and just run it right here on the podium so you guys don't have to ask me questions."

This season has been different since Nov. 19 when Gasol joined the 8-3 Lakers, playing for the first time with an Andrew Bynum who wasn't struggling to come back from injury, but averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds instead.

The Lakers are 15-1 since. They looked so impressive on last week's East Coast trip, Jackson was alarmed to hear the media ask Kobe Bryant whether he was pursuing Michael Jordan's six titles, as if it was already assumed Bryant will get No. 5 this spring.

There's another Bryant this season too, forgoing the patience he tried out last season when he bought the house line that their young players needed time to develop.

Bryant ran clean out of patience when their development, and the team's casual play, popped up again at a particularly inconvenient time, in the playoffs.

In the midst of their seven-game embarrassment against Houston, ABC's Mark Jackson railed, "I'm never picking the Lakers again. I'm picking the Denver Nuggets, and I'm picking whoever comes out of the East."

Said Bryant, asked to respond after the Lakers' escape in Game 7: "Mark's right."

Bryant now reminds Jackson of Jordan, who kept coming up with reasons to be upset to fire himself up:

They don't think we can win on the road.

They don't think I can play with a broken finger.

Nike pays LeBron James more than me.

"I just think that's his evolution, getting into it," said Jackson. "The injury really makes him focus on every day because every day it's a new process."

Tuesday night was typical: therapy, rest, tape, loosening exercises, 40 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

For anyone who hasn't figured it out, something is going to have to change to keep Bryant from winning his second MVP.

Even if the Celtics win the East, they have an ensemble cast, so credit is split three ways. Dwight Howard would have a shot if Orlando takes the East, but his numbers are down from last season.

James' Cavaliers are No. 3 in the East, which is not where MVPs come from.

"One of them is up and coming and one of the most remarkable athletes any of has ever seen," said Jerry West last week. "The other one, and I'm talking about Kobe Bryant, is a polished, confident, tough-minded guy who's going to drive his guys so much that, with the talent they have there. . .

"There's a few players I'd pay to see play and he'd be one of a very few, OK?

"The guy is just one of those players of a decade, that's what he is. And I don't think people even know that."

At this rate, they'll figure it out.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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