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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Have Lakers gone back through looking glass, or down rabbit hole?

From the dark days of winter to the inspired play of spring to the crash of the last week, it's hard to get a read on this team. It's not like the good old days, but how much have things changed?

April 09, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Brandon Roy and the Blazers handed Kobe Bryant and the Lakers their fourth consecutive loss on Friday night.
Brandon Roy and the Blazers handed Kobe Bryant and the Lakers their fourth… (Steve Dipaola / Reuters )

And the White Knight is talking backwards/And the Red Queen's "off with her head" . . .

If we're a long way from the '60s when the problem was a scourge that wore green, not the red queen scaring Alice in Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," this was the Lakers' season on the other side of the looking glass.

Remember Miami routing them here on Christmas?

Remember Kobe Bryant promising to kick rear ends at practice, announcing:

"You don't just have two rings and say we're satisfied with what we've got. . . . I'm not rolling with that."

Remember when the Spurs ran over them three days later in San Antonio?

Remember Boston coming into Staples on Jan. 30 and rocking the Lakers' world, too, by which time half the local talk-show hosts were on medication?

Remember Jerry West noting how old and slow the Lakers looked?

Remember when it looked like they were over?

By spring when the Lakers passed back through the looking glass, everyone said they planned it all along.

Now it's as if nothing has changed . . . almost.

The Lakers are back as everyone's favorite in the West and a narrow pick (3-2) over Chicago (5-2) to win it all.

(Miami was actually the preseason fave — no, really — in the days of fear and loathing when ESPN launched a Heat site with updates on winning 72 and LeBron James averaging a triple-double.)

(Miami will miss by at least 14 wins, 'Bron is at 27-8-7 and ESPN dropped both updates by December.)

The Lakers started the season as twice-defending champions and three-time defending West champions without ever having been all they could be with a healthy Andrew Bynum at the end.

If they ever got there, I wrote then and for two years before, no one else would be close.

Things have changed.

With 60 wins, San Antonio is the best West team to challenge the Lakers since they started this run in 2008.

The East is better than it has been since Michael Jordan's heyday in Chicago.

At the top of their game, the Lakers may or may not still be the best and in any case, it will be close.

However it ends, it's late in the game for them with Phil Jackson on his way out, two rotation players under 30 and a big free-agent crossroads in 2012.

Under the circumstances, what so many think was inevitable was actually remarkable.

With Bynum looking heavy and slow at midseason and his elders looking elderly, it appeared as if the Lakers' time might have already come and gone.

They then began rolling back the years after the All-Star break, with Bynum healthy and assuming a role as he never had and a few more developments. . . .

If everything the Lakers do still starts and ends with Bryant, he's no longer an all-purpose savior.

After playing hurt last season, the incomparable finisher has lost some bounce and leaves layups on the rim here and there.

His declining free-throw attempts (7.1 the last three seasons, down from a career high of 10.2 in 2005-06) are a function of better teammates, fewer minutes (34, from last season's 39) and his transformation from a slasher who might pull up to a mid-range jump shooter who might take it all the way.

Unbroken stallion that he is, Bryant may be the greatest technician the game has ever seen as far as footwork, form, et al., remaking himself into middle-age Kobe so smoothly, it happened almost without mention.

If his shooting percentage (47-46-45) and scoring (27-27-25) have dropped the last three seasons, it's all but imperceptible.

He's still considered the game's best closer.

If the Lakers can no longer expect him to tow them into position when they don't feel like playing and win games at the end, they now rely on . . . defense?

You'll never guess who started guarding people at midseason.

Under Jackson, the Lakers traditionally played IIAY? defense, for "Is It April Yet?"

Of course, some years it was IIMY? — "Is It May Yet?"

In the 2008 Finals, they went all the way to YMCWFT? — "You Mean the Celtics Won the First Two?"

This season they switched to a San Antonio-style don't-double, don't-rotate scheme, installed by assistant coach/former Spur Chuck Person.

Happily for them, this scheme requires less thought . . . which was what they had been giving.

"I didn't see this, man," Denver Coach George Karl said last week, grieving over the Lakers' revival.

"The thing I see is the defensive commitment is maybe better than it's ever been. They're making plays and putting defensive energy into the game on almost every possession.

"That wasn't their personality most of this year. I mean, they could always tune it up but it's become kind of their motto."

Well, for a while.

The Lakers are 0-4 since, having either gone back through the looking glass or just knocked off, Lakers-style.

In any case, the other half of local talk show hosts are now on medication, too.

Around here, we call it "playoff form."

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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