Posted Feb 28 2010 2:42AM
Kobe Bryant admitted he was looking forward to Sunday afternoon's clash with the Nuggets. On Wednesday. Before playing Philadelphia. Such are the challenges facing the defending champs, who more often than not face their fiercest competition within their own locker room.
The Lakers tackle two opponents every night -- one wears different colors and the other is a ghost. Phil Jackson's crew is playing against the memory of last season, his other nine title teams and all those legends who fashioned the NBA's most glamorous franchise.
So when the Lakers sleepwalk through parts of wins over the 76ers and Grizzlies or fail to match the intensity of the Mavericks in the last week, questions arise. Do they lose focus, rely too much on Bryant, not take their foes seriously enough or are they just looking ahead to the playoffs?
"Sometimes we just feel like we're too comfortable, too confident in games," Pau Gasol confessed, "and we don't push hard enough at times to be able to pull away from teams."
After getting a late push Friday night to subdue Philly, Jackson didn't sound like the winning coach.
"We weren't proud of our defense. We weren't exactly happy with our offense," he moaned. "I would like to play inspired basketball. It was more like a cursory job getting that out there."
Nitpicking, sure. The Lakers are 44-15 and the experts and the rest of us have pretty much conceded the Western Conference's top seed throughout the playoffs. The only drama left is the home-court edge in The Finals. LeBron James and the Cavaliers do own a season sweep for the Lakers, but the potential Puppet Series is still four months away.
Let's stick to the now. The Lakers are the first to admit they get a little out of whack at times. Some misguided souls put the blame on Bryant, advancing the theory that some teammates have a tendency to concede to his will and fade. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmer, the premise goes, were more assertive when Kobe was out for five games recently and lost that edge when No. 24 returned.
Kobe, remember, is always there to bail out Showtime: Next Generation. Never mind that Gasol is an All-Star and among the most skilled 7-footers in the world. Lamar Odon is as close to a five-position player as there is in the league. Ron Artest may be the strongest '3' this side of LeBron and easily the nastiest. Andrew Bynum is a star anywhere else, but almost lost in Los Angeles.
"We have to make sure we control games," Gasol said. "We have enough guys here and enough quality where we can do that."
But it always goes back to Bryant. When the Lakers needed a miracle 3-pointer in the closing seconds at Memphis, the ball ended up in the hands of the guy who hadn't played in 2 1/2 weeks, was coming off a sprained ankle and is playing with a broken finger. Kobe, of course, nailed it.
Still, the close call on Beale Street was followed by a loss in Dallas and an unwanted slugfest with the Sixers at Staples Center. Close calls don't sit too well with the Lakers because, apparently, they don't get enough of the referee variety to go their way. The gospel according to Pau.
"We have to step it up a notch here in order to be successful down the road and not come down to the wire every single time," Gasol said, "because we're never going to get the benefit of the doubt on calls."
The other 29 teams and everyone who guards Kobe just filed a protest to the office of You've Got to be Kidding Me, but Gasol isn't the first athlete to cry foul about fouls. Gasol did say Friday that the Lakers' level of play going into the playoffs is more important than where they sit in the standings.
Even with a road-heavy schedule to finish out the regular season, finding a reason to be inspired with 23 games to go is a challenge in itself. Teams that repeat as champion rarely have a better record the second time around. The proverbial bull's-eye and getting everyone's best punch are overplayed expressions that just happen to be true.
To carry the clichés further, the Lakers are in the dog days of the season. The No. 1 seed is in sight and there's really not much to prove before the tournament. Sunday does offer a reason to perk up. The Nuggets are second in the West, fell to the Lakers in the conference finals last year and have won the first two games between the freshly-minted rivals this season.
"We're looking forward to it," Bryant said without any added emotion in his voice.
Maybe more so to grade themselves.
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