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Fran Blinebury

Lakers getting their groove back at just the right time

Posted Mar 7 2011 10:24AM

SAN ANTONIO -- At least nobody cried.

Of course, if that were going to happen, it might have been Antonio McDyess' tip-in at the horn to give the Spurs a one-point win over the Lakers on Feb. 3 in L.A. that turned on the tears.

Or it might have been that miserable belly-flop in Cleveland just before the All-Star break that opened the faucets.

The Lakers have had plenty of opportunities to go off on a crying jag all season long and yet here they are wearing grins that might run right on past their ears.

The two-time defending champions are 7-0 since the All-Star break. After Sunday's thumping of the team with the best record in the league, maybe it's not so improbable to think of three championships in a row.

Not when Kobe Bryant is playing with the lethal energy of electricity humming through a power line instead of an uncontrolled bolt of lightning. Not when the Lakers are moving and passing the ball with the precision of diamond-cutters, chasing on defense like a pack of Dobermans.

And especially not when Andrew Bynum grabs 17 rebounds, blocks three shots, changes countless others and does everything but set off an air raid siren to announce his presence in a 34-13 first quarter.

"It makes a huge difference," Bryant said. "He's extremely active defensively. He had just four points, but he was extremely dominant because he was all over the place. I'm not sure how many blocks he had, but he altered a great deal of shots. We funnel everything to our bigs, so the more active he is, the better we are. We've definitely made an adjustment in our system and I think it's paid off a great deal."

Even in his sixth season, Bynum, the 23-year-old center is still the swirling wind that can turn the Lakers from a gentle breeze to a gale force capable of knocking down everything in its path. They never seem to know about his health or his concentration or his aggression level. But it's his length, when combined with that of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, can give the Lakers a front line that is formidable.

That's just one reason why San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and everyone in the Spurs locker room has consistently maintained that despite their own league-leading 51-12 record, everyone who dismisses the Lakers due to any regular-season peccadilloes does so at their own peril.

"It seems perfectly logical to me that at times their focus might not be 100 percent," Popovich said. "But they're a group with fantastic corporate knowledge. They know how difficult it is. Because they know that they also know what it will take down the stretch here and come playoff time.

"So I think they deserve the respect for that and until proven otherwise. That will convince me, when somebody beats them four out of seven (in the playoffs). Then I'll believe they're not the best team in the West."

But part of the mental game of being the reigning champion and part of the challenge of going for a "three-peat" is finding a way to keep getting to the top of the mountain without wearing yourself out on the climb.

There have been more than a few times this season when the Lakers looked less like a team that was saving itself and picking its spots than a bunch groping in the dark and asking questions.

"You always wonder," Bryant said. "Even when you're playing well, you're always wondering. That's part of the challenge of the year. It's having those questions and then trying to put that puzzle together to be a great team and to be a championship caliber team."

It is always both tempting and dangerous to read too much into any one game over the course of the 82-game schedule. After all, less than 48 hours earlier the Spurs were the ones playing the role of wrecking ball with a 30-point win over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Sob Sisters.

The difference is that the Spurs have been delivering at a high level all season long, not only making big shots and chasing down key rebounds, but taking the floor each night with a laser's focus on what they're trying to accomplish.

The Lakers, not so much. They have kept telling themselves they believed this was in them. At times, that might have been closer to blind faith.

"Something like this, a game like this over a team like San Antonio, gives you confidence and restores a comfort level," Gasol said. "You never think that you're going to be up by 32 points against that type of team. So it does take you back. Maybe it restores your own belief in how good you can be."

The belief comes not just from one explosively brilliant afternoon, but from the Lakers now delivering over a stretch of two weeks, at the same time reaching back to what they were and reaching out to what they can still be as the playoffs draw nearer.

Maybe if there were messages sent it was when Lakers coach Phil Jackson watched his reserves fiddle away a 31-point lead down to 22 and then sent his starters back onto the floor midway through the fourth quarter. There were Kobe and Derek Fisher arguing calls with the refs, there was Matt Barnes slamming his fist in anger on the scorer's table and there was Bynum reaching up to contest shots again.

An attitude seemed to be back.

"We're the champs," Bryant said, "so everything has to go through us no matter how well anybody's playing. But (the Spurs) have been the best team so far this year."

All of which means it was just another chapter in a story that might be building toward another climax in the Western Conference finals.

"Now both teams go back to the drawing board and figure out how to beat each other up again," said Odom. "You take it back to square one."

Here in March, with two veteran teams who have been there before, it's far too early for tears.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. 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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