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BILL PLASCHKE

These Lakers don't look like champions

If they keep playing like this, they won't even get to the Finals again.

March 10, 2010|Bill Plaschke

The shot sailed through the basket, the brightly colored strips of paper fell from the rafters, the fans stood and screamed.

And then, see ya.

The only thing quicker than Kobe Bryant's game-winning basket against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night was the celebration afterward.

The fans hustled out of Staples Center as if leaving a bad movie. The Lakers hustled off the floor as if leaving a messy house.

They all know. The NBA knows. If we're going to be honest with ourselves, all of Los Angeles should know.

Based on their current attitude and work ethic, the Lakers are not a championship team. If they can't summon the consistent urgency of last season, they are not even a Finals team.

Can they beat a Cleveland team that just keeps getting better? Not without home-court advantage, they can't.

Can they beat a Denver or Dallas team that finally, truly believes it is better than the Lakers? Not without an effort adjustment, they can't.

All these thoughts were running through my head as I watched the Lakers slog to that 109-107 victory over Toronto. Yet having spent the last month only watching this team from afar while covering the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics, I wondered if I wasn't just being an alarmist.

Turns out, the most alarming thing is that afterward, the Lakers agreed with me.

When I asked Coach Phil Jackson whether this team had the same consistent urgency of last season, he said, "I don't think so. ... We don't have that. ... Not that we can't reclaim it at some point. ... That's what we're trying to do."

Jackson later added, simply, "The urgency of playing well has not struck us yet."

In an ominously quiet winning locker room, several players agreed.

Said Pau Gasol: "We have to face reality. We have to make a conscious effort to get that sense of urgency...We have to do a better job figuring out what we do."

Said Lamar Odom: "This was about ground we're not supposed to be giving."

There is the argument that the two repeating championship Lakers teams from 2001 and 2002 also cruised to the regular-season finish line under similarly shaky ground, and indeed this can be proved in the records.

After 65 games, the current team has exactly matched the 47-18 record of the 2002 title team, and is actually three games better than the 2001 title team.

But there are two big differences. Neither of those teams lost three in a row after February. And both of those teams had the ultimate equalizer in Shaquille O'Neal.

Need to turn up the heat? O'Neal would knock somebody on their butt in the first few minutes of a game and it would be done. Need to start the playoffs with a shout? O'Neal would rattle the rim on an alley-oop and everyone would know it was time for business.

This team doesn't work like that. Last season this team won not with a knockout punch, but consistent jabs, a Trevor Ariza steal, a Derek Fisher jumper, a Kobe Bryant grimace.

This team is lacking the ability to repeatedly pound. They get some momentum, and the guards are beaten down the middle. They feel some swagger, and Andrew Bynum picks up his fifth foul. They need a push, and Ron Artest ...well, what exactly is Ron Artest doing these days, anyway?

He has played well defensively lately, particularly in that big win against Carmelo Anthony and Denver. But he has yet to fit into the offensive flow or consistently change games like Ariza.

Then there's Bryant, whose six game-winning shots in the final 10 seconds of game can be viewed through another lens.

What if he was like every other great player and missed, say, four of those six shots? The Lakers would be going on the road just to escape the West, and it wouldn't be pretty.

This, I suspect, is why Jackson doesn't always look real excited these days after Bryant saves his team in the final moments. Championship teams should not need such saving.

Said Bryant: "We're hungry, but we have to think about it in a different way. We have to think about it not in terms of June. We have to think about it in terms of tomorrow."

Thinking about June, the Lakers are on a path to get mugged in May. Even if the Lakers can find that mid-April switch and jolt themselves into title form, some irreparable damage has been done. Losing or struggling against the likes of Denver and Cleveland and Orlando has provided hope where hope was once lost.

Other contenders now believe they can beat the Lakers, which is the first big step toward doing so.

"What's crazy about it is that these teams are getting confidence they can beat us," said Odom. "You can see it in their body language. ... There's a lot more talking. ... There's extra animation. ... Even when they come here."

They know it. Everybody knows it. Seventeen games left. Enough to find a soul. Enough to lose a championship.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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