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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Lakers have them right where they want them

They remain an enigmatic bunch, but with Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and a huge front line, it would be foolish to count them out going into the playoffs.

April 16, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • The Lakers' Kobe Bryant (24), Pau Gasol (16), Lamar Odom (7) and Shannon Brown (12) will begin defense of their NBA championship on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center against the New Orleans Hornets.
The Lakers' Kobe Bryant (24), Pau Gasol (16), Lamar Odom (7) and Shannon… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

"Playoff form," Lakers style.

Yes, despite their horrific finish, they finished just as Coach Phil Jackson hoped, healthy and on a roll!

Of course, at 5:04 — the last four seconds of regulation and the overtime at Sacramento — it was a very short roll.

That's how much time it took a smoldering Kobe Bryant, who'd been ignoring teammates and firing up one bad shot after another, to make his game-tying three-pointer before they won in overtime.

And by healthy, that's compared to last spring, when Andrew Bynum missed the last four weeks and Bryant was hiding his own knee injury.

Now Kobe's fine, Bynum missed only the last game and Steve Blake is getting over chickenpox ... even if Jackson listed his condition as "speckled."

So, everything's fine!

No, really.

"This has to do with guys that played the game a lot, they've got a lot of miles on their legs, they're coming to the end of a season," Jackson said.

"Now some of it, the mind was willing but the body wasn't. They wanted to be there but they couldn't."

No kidding.

Didn't Jackson lament their "lack of urgency" in one of his only-you-Phil-Jackson press sessions?

Oh, right, last Sunday:

Q: Do think your team kicked back after losing to Denver and falling off the Spurs' pace?

Jackson: Yes.

Q: So you think it's important to win tonight's game?

Jackson: I do. I don't know if they're going to do it or not. Yes, I'm encouraging them, very much so.

Q: So you're telling them it's important?

Jackson, beaming: Yes.

Taking this at face value, you'd have to think these "Lakers" this guy coaches can't be any good, can they?

Of course, they're two-time defending champions, with five titles this millennium to the Spurs' three, with the Celtics, Pistons and Heat at one each.

If Jackson is as much an emoticon as Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman ("What, me worry?") or Smiling Bob in the Enzyte commercials, he has 11 titles and has missed only six Finals in 19 seasons.

So who the in the name of James Naismith are these Lakers?

First of all, there's Jackson.

If no coach ever dared to ease through seasons as he does, it wasn't as perilous in Chicago, where he couldn't call off Michael Jordan and Co., who had lockdown defense in their DNA.

After the furor accompanying their 72-win season in 1996-97, Jackson vowed not to go through that again.

So they settled for 69 the next season.

Jackson's five Lakers champions would win 67-56-58-65-57.

The Shaquille O'Neal-Bryant teams that won three titles in a row failed to win the West two of those seasons and once didn't win their division.

Jackson got Kobe to fall in line behind Shaq, most of the time, but no one could get Shaq to come out of hibernation before spring.

When the Shaq-Kobe Lakers had it together, the earth shook beneath their feet.

When they didn't, it wasn't hard to tell.

These Lakers are as harmonious as a church choir, loom over the NBA with the unmatchable combination of Bryant and the Bynum-Pau Gasol-Lamar Odom triple post that goes 7-feet, 7-feet, 6-10 . .. but never posted the league's best record, finishing No. 2-3-3 before this season's drop to No. 4.

The Shaq-Kobe Lakers were simple. These guys are complex.

Bryant, a modern-day knight who lives for his quest, is a scary-type leader, featuring a death stare in which lasers seem to be about to come out of his eyes.

Nevertheless, Bryant defers to Jackson during the season, swallowing any frustration, rolling his eyes at any suggestion there's reason for some.

Pure method actor that he is, Kobe throws himself into any persona he assumes; this doesn't make him easy to cover.

Then there are the big guys.

If they're reasonably hard workers, none is Kevin Garnett.

Depending on how things are going, Gasol is either the game's most skilled big man or the softest big man since the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in "Ghostbusters."

What Pau is is a slender big man, ideally a power forward — as he is alongside Bynum — who can be bothered by physical play but has also shown he can stand up to it.

Unfortunately for Pau, with no Andrew, he gets mauled by bigger people, such as Kendrick Perkins.

Amazingly, despite years of criticism and setbacks, Bynum has never stopped tracking up, now embraces his role and may be their hardest-working big man.

Now, if he can only stop getting hurt.

Lamar remains Lamar. If he took it to the hole every night, he would have been an All-Star years ago.

Add it all up and anything can happen.

Phil and Kobe play it cool.

At the defensive end, a big guy or two or three take a play or two, etc.

At some point, Kobe can't stand it any longer, jumps in, reaches into his psychedelic repertoire and saves the day, or not.

When they're great, it's easy to see why.

No Lakers fan, or for that matter, basketball fan, should miss the fact this is greatness.

"I used to always think Michael was first and Kobe was second," Oklahoma City Coach Scott Brooks said.

"Then I moved to 1A and 1B. Now I'm not so sure who's 1A and 1B."

If Jordan made the game easier, and himself the game's greatest player, Kobe has reached heights beyond anything even Mike ever did.

In other words, when the Lakers aren't great, it's not because the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter's aligned with Mars.

Amazingly, it has worked a lot and could again, whether it's the high-wire act of all time or the man falling off the 20-story building, saying as he passes every floor, "So far, so good."

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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