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Sekou Smith

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The Lakers, on the cusp of another trip to The Finals, are approaching each game like it's their last.
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Now more than ever, focus is the key for the Lakers


Posted May 22 2010 2:43PM

LOS ANGELES -- No reminders are needed.

The Lakers realize what is at stake.

No amount of rest will change the magnitude of the Western Conference finals series they are involved in right now with Phoenix.

The expectations are great, and why wouldn't they be with the Lakers up 2-0 and seemingly in complete control.

The rewards are potentially even greater, a third straight trip to the NBA Finals are just a few solid quarters of basketball away.

So that makes Game 3 against the Suns Sunday night in Phoenix as critical a game as any that Phil Jackson's team has played this season.

"We're focused, we know what we need to do," Kobe Bryant said. "They'll play well and we'll be ready."

This laser focus the Lakers have shown is a dramatic shift from the fortitude they showed down the stretch of the regular season, when they wobbled their way through a 4-7 finish before facing Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs.

It was easy then to question their mental toughness, their championship pedigree and their willingness to embrace the role of defending champions.

When a reporter suggested Friday that the Lakers might not benefit from the three days of rest between games in this series, the reaction was as pointed as it was swift.

"We really try to never take any games off, especially during the playoffs," Pau Gasol said. "We might do it unconsciously during the season, but we cant afford to do that during the playoffs, otherwise you pay the price. You put yourself in a position where you could lose a game, lose a series and get knocked out. We understand where we're at, what we're playing for and what's at stake. I mean, we're a veteran team. This is not our first rodeo."

That's why there is no fear now, with so much at stake and the potential of a NBA Finals rematch with the Boston Celtics looming, provided they both get past their challenges in the conference finals and move on.

"We're focusing on the moment," Bryant was quick to remind anyone thinking beyond Games 3 and 4 in Phoenix.

Two wins in dominant fashion don't provide any false hope about what could be. Winning four of their last six games in Phoenix, where the home crowd will be on edge and ready to turn in either direction Sunday, provides no solace. The Lakers' reserves totally outplaying their Suns counterparts means next to nothing now.

They are treating the non-Los Angeles portion of the conference finals like a new series altogether. Forget that they are six wins away from the 16th championship in franchise history, they need two more to reach the title round.

"As far as we're concerned, Games 1 and 2 are history," Lakers reserve Jordan Farmar said. "We can't live off of that between now and [Sunday night]. It's about the next step. And every game is a new challenge."

The answers sound like something out of the Zen Master's book of wisdom. The reality, however, is that however righteous it might seem for the Lakers not to believe their own hype, history says they have nothing to worry about.

The franchise is a robust 41-1 when winning the first two games of a best-of-seven series. The last time they blew a lead like this, Jackson was still playing in the NBA -- the 1969 Lakers lost a 2-0 lead and eventually lost in seven games to Boston in the NBA Finals.

It's a history lesson no one needs to share with these Lakers. They comprehend the gravity of what they are dealing with now.

Stray from the championship path, even for a moment, and who knows what could happen?

They vow to show up for Game 3 free of any of the foolish pride that can accumulate during an eight-game playoff win streak.

Instead of great expectations, there are no expectations.

"I expect us to go in there and play as hard as possible and that's it," Gasol said. "We'll try to play our game and give ourselves a chance to win. We have to do what we can control, bring the effort, the talent, the focus and the rest, we'll see what happens. But we just don't know, we have to be ready for anything."

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of NBA.com's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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