Posted May 2 2012 10:24AM
LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant grabbed control from a scramble near the baseline at the opposite end.
"I just had to get the ball," he said. "It was a loose ball. We were fighting for it. I don't know who it was under the basket. I just shoved him out of the way."
It was Denver's Kenneth Faried.
Bryant dribbled on the run into the front court, then into the lane, then right at the basket. One defender, Ty Lawson, had been bumped aside with the expected ease of seven inches and 10 pounds difference and another, bigger Nugget, Danilo Gallinari, was between the Lakers' superstar guard and the rim.
Gallinari stepped up to cut off the path. Another bump. At the moment of contact, Bryant wrapped the ball around Gallinari with a two-hand dish to Andrew Bynum a few feet away. Slam dunk with 2:15 remaining in Game 2. Six-point lead. High 10s.
"I pushed it down the floor and had a layup," Bryant said, "but you've got to reward your big men."
The Lakers are smooth, efficient and playing with focused energy -- that much is obvious after the 104-100 victory over the Nuggets on Monday night at Staples Center provided a 2-0 lead in the first round series.
(P.S.: They're smooth and efficient and playing with focused energy in the postseason.)
That much is unusual.
The Lakers haven't looked this in control in the first round in years. There is none of the procrastination of 2010, when they knew Oklahoma City was young and untested and could be put away when L.A. decided it was time to get down to business, which took six games ... and could have been seven. There is none of the overconfidence of 2011, when the two-time defending champions lost the opener at home to New Orleans and again had to go six games before slipping by.
There is, instead, a superior team using its size advantage to dominate inside and generally step on the throat of a lesser opponent in a way these Lakers have not done this early in the playoffs before. They have a 2-0 lead in what they should have expected would be a 2-0 lead and, perhaps, the beginning stage of what they hope will be a long postseason journey.
It's impossible not to think this is the 2011 finish at work. But how could last May not have stayed with them? Walking off the court that afternoon in Dallas, slumped over in the humiliation of not being able to match the energy of the Mavericks -- let alone the execution. In a Game 4 of cheap shots and inexcusable effort, the Lakers had been embarrassed in every way. By the opponent and by their own actions.
They had been eliminated before, of course, just never like this. Losing to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals was the flashing red light of a veteran team not being able to stand up to the fight, but at least that was in Game 6 against a voracious, competitve roster. Being swept by the Mavericks in the second round in the farewell for coach Phil Jackson, who always preached composure, left a red mark unlike any other.
The initial response during the season was the Lakers' focus being challenged on several occasions. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were traded, and then not. Odom was traded, definitely. There was a new system with a new coach, Mike Brown. Derek Fisher was traded. When Bryant was injured and Metta World Peace was suspended, there went any chance to build momentum heading into the playoffs.
The first days of the playoffs became the real response to the 2011 playoff finish, though.
On Sunday, Andrew Bynum turned the rim into a no-fly zone and there was nice offensive rhythm and just 11 turnovers in the first game in about a week. The previous days had been filled with a schedule break, injury and rest in the regular-season finale. There was uncertainty about depth at small forward with World Peace in the penalty box and Matt Barnes working back from a sprained ankle, but the Lakers played well.
Tuesday was the concern of a 19-point lead in the third quarter being reduced to four on several occasions late in the fourth. But the Lakers finally ditched the Nuggets for good and a missed opportunity to put a team away when the chance was there became the chance to win a close playoff game. The positive fall-back position is that L.A. still hasn't trailed in the series, something they haven't been able to often say in the first round.
"I think that by losing last season and the way we lost we are approaching this postseason much more focused," Gasol said. "We're not overlooking any team and any games. We understand how hard it is and how much it takes to be successful. I think it is effected a little bit by what happened last year.
"Some of the guys weren't here last year, but we all know. We've been really encouraging and reinforcing guys to be focused, to be aggressive, just to be real intense out there as much as we can possibly be. Now it's an opportunity to grow again when we go on the road and see what we're capable of on the road against Denver. It'll be a good test and it's a step that is needed if we want to be successful."
They're going to Denver, not Dallas, on Thursday and play Game 3 on Friday. But Dallas will be with the Lakers. Dallas will be with them for a while, only now maybe in a good way.
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