Posted May 15 2010 7:24PM
LOS ANGELES -- This is dramatic stuff, these Western Conference finals. These are the career-defining moments players savor, coaches remember and fans treasure.
"The conference finals don't mean anything," Kobe Bryant groused.
This is no act. For just about every other club, getting through two rounds of the playoffs is an accomplishment in itself. Reaching the NBA version of the Final Four often means contract extensions for coaches and a new sense of appreciation for players who get there.
Don't we see Carmelo Anthony in a new light after Denver reached the West finals last year?
But for Kobe and the Lakers, facing Phoenix is hardly anything to celebrate. The defending champs are merely at the midpoint. Lose now and it's a failure, not an achievement.
Bryant has certainly put out that vibe during the nearly weeklong wait for Monday night's Game 1 at Staples Center. He's been short and preoccupied with reporters, almost to the point of appearing bothered during the break after sweeping Utah in the West semifinals.
"Kobe has peaked for this series," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "There's no doubt about it. I think he feels as this team that we've gotten halfway through these playoffs in what is our march towards defending our title and the job is still not done.
"We have a ways to go until we get to that spot, so at this point everything is like just keep your head down and keep out of sight and try to get your way through this next round."
It's almost as if Bryant is answering questions with as little effort as possible, conserving his energy for a series that promises to be more taxing than the last. He's dismissed the revenge factor even though the Suns have won the last two playoff series against the Lakers.
Longtime teammate Derek Fisher is putting plenty of stock in those two meetings, even though he actually wasn't with the Lakers when Phoenix won first-round series in 2006 and '07.
"It is personal for me," said Fisher, who's played 11 of his 14 seasons in Los Angeles. "Obviously we can't take back what happened then, but this is the closest we can get to doing it. And so I'm going to take on the extra emotion that a lot of the guys that were on those teams will have."
Jackson has emphasized the little things during the off week, such as rest, eating right and keeping distractions to a minimum. No one but immediate family at home is one of the basic suggestions from the Zen Master.
Keeping teams at an even keep has always been one of Jackson's greatest gifts. The Lakers for the last decade, just as the Jackson-coached Bulls of the 1990s, don't get overwhelmed by the task at hand or the stage they're on.
"We're all in a good mind set and we understand what point of the season we're in," Pau Gasol said.
That doesn't mean the juices don't start flowing. Bryant may not let on the enormity of the situation, but the Lakers aren't about to understate what's at stake. They also know the fight the Suns are preparing to wage.
"It's the Western Conference finals," Fisher said. "If you think for one second that guys like Steve Nash and Grant Hill, who've been in this league for 14, 15-plus years and never had that opportunity ... if you think they're going to come into this series and kind of skip through it and give it a good ole college try, that's not going to happen.
"Those guys are going to come in and try to knock us out. So we're going to have to be ready to go from the tip Monday night."
Just as Bryant is peaking -- he scored at least 30 in the last five playoff games -- Jackson believes the Lakers as a whole are getting close to the same. If they are to defend their title, that's exactly what needs to happen over the next two weeks.
"If we're going to be a team that goes to the Finals," Jackson said, "we're going to have to elevate our play now and I'm glad that we have a competitive team to match it."
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