Lakers play Jekyll and Hyde
Not knowing which team will show up is part of L.A.'s charm
LOS ANGELES -- A leopard can never change its spots and the Lakers can't reinvent themselves either, it seems.
It turns out, that's OK.
A year after the Lakers ebbed and flowed through the playoffs, being dubbed a "Jekyll and Hyde" team by coach Phil Jackson and "bipolar" by their star, Kobe Bryant, the purple and gold are back on the seesaw.
As the Lakers chase their repeat championship, the only way to enjoy the sequel is to embrace the highs when they come -- and they will come -- and stomach the lows that are sure to be interspersed along the way.
Rather than wondering why Los Angeles can't look as thoroughly dominating every game as it did in its 111-87 Game 5 victory Tuesday, Lakers fans should merely accept this team for what it is: A squad that will make it to the Finals as long as it wins all of its home games; a team one win away from advancing to the second round, when two of the other three higher-seeded teams in the West trail in their first-round series; a group that bends as much as the Russian women's gymnastics team, but never breaks.
If there's anything to learn from this team, it's to enjoy the ride.
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So what if they're treating this series like Ben Affleck's career, with Game 4 every bit as much a train wreck as "Gigli" was and Game 5 as surprisingly sublime as "Gone Baby Gone."
Thunder star Kevin Durant, who finished with 17 points on 5-for-14 shooting after averaging 26.8 points per game in Games 1-4, knew it was futile to try to explain how a team could look so different between one game to the next.
"I really don't know," Durant said. "I wish I could tell you why."
The "how" the Lakers won is much easier to figure out. They won the game because they passed the ball -- inside primarily, owning a staggering 58-26 advantage in the paint thanks to 25 points from Pau Gasol and 21 points from Andrew Bynum, but all around with a crispness and a purpose, assisting on 27 of 42 baskets (64.3 percent) . The Lakers won because they outscored the transition-heavy Thunder 12-7 on fast-break points after being owned in that category 72-17 in Games 1-4. They won because they took just 14 3-pointers and made five after launching an average of 26.5 triples per game in Oklahoma. They won because they jumped on Oklahoma City early and never relented. They won because they controlled the glass 45-42, continuing the trend of whichever team to board more gets the win. And they won because they have Kobe Bryant on their team.
By now you should know that the only person who knows what Bryant is going to do is Bryant. Off in Game 1, on in Game 2, off in Game 3, unplugged in Game 4, the team's fifth-leading scorer in Game 5 with 13 points (behind Ron Artest even!). Bryant was the tone-setting playmaker at the same time with seven assists, and he was the defensive stopper, asking to guard 21-year-old Russell Westbrook after the team's film session Monday and putting his 31-year-old body and aggravated right knee to the test.
Westbrook finished with 15 points on 4-for-13 shooting, by far his worst game of the series.
"Kobe had an impact on the game," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "The stat sheet does not show that. The guy was competing and set the tone defensively. He did a good job of guarding Russell to start the game. That kind of threw us off a little bit. Kobe's a great player. He found his way."
After the game, Bryant -- perhaps still infused with the "thrill" (as he calls it) of taking on a defensive challenge like that -- proclaimed, "If I didn't have Pau, Andrew and the crew that I have, I'd score 45-50 points." He has scored just 25 points combined over the last two games.
You never know what you're going to get with this team, so revel in the surprises. The Spurs have been a model of consistency, revolving around Tim Duncan like a ball tethered to a pole for the last decade-and-a-half. But have they ever provided the intrigue the Lakers provide?
There is something exciting about seeing Artest go 2-for-4 on 3-pointers after coming into the game shooting just 3-for-23 from 3-point range in the series. There's something invigorating about seeing Jordan Farmar score 14 points off the bench after scoring just 16 in the first four games combined.
There's no guarantee you'll see anything close to that from either of them in Game 6, so enjoy it while it lasts.
There is something maddeningly magical about seeing Derek Fisher in the second half represent both sides of the coin on a single play, old enough to get stripped at half court by Westbrook, smart enough and stubborn enough to not quit on the play by sprinting behind him and stealing it right back.
After the game, neither Bryant nor Jackson would commit to reattaching the labels they gave their team last year. But Bryant explained how the team deals with its sinusoidal personality.
"It's adjustments," Bryant said. "It's playoff basketball, that's why you can't get too high or too low after a big win or a tough loss. You make your adjustments and move on."
Lakers fans should adjust their expectations in conjunction. There'll be good days and bad days and great days and days that make you hate them, but there will be nary a dull moment.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.