- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- So you think you should know the Lakers by now, don't you? You think after watching them play about 100 games from the preseason to the postseason you should know their tendencies, their habits and their routines. At this point they should be like that relative who's always 15 minutes late and never pays his share when you go out to dinner.
You don't turn your back on them, but you learn after a while to show up 15 minutes later than you're supposed to with a couple of extra bucks in your pocket. You simply adjust your expectations based on their repeated actions.
That's why you just knew the Lakers were going to lose to Oklahoma City in Game 6 in the first round, you were convinced the Lakers were going to drop at least one game in Utah in the second round and you were sure they'd come out flat after a week off against a Phoenix Suns team that had just come off sweeping the San Antonio Spurs. You weren't going out on a limb with these predictions; you were simply working off what you've seen this team do all season.
Well, throw it all away. That's right; throw out everything you've seen this season. Trash everything you saw in Games 3 and 4 in Oklahoma City, forget about that 4-7 conclusion to the season and that dreadful 2-3 road swing that started it all. It doesn't matter.
The Lakers have now won seven games in a row in the playoffs, and in the process have closed out the Thunder in Oklahoma City, swept the Jazz in Utah and beat the Suns at their own game, blowing them out 128-107 to take a 1-0 lead in their Western Conference finals series.
I know you're surprised. About as surprised I was the first time my cousin was waiting for me at dinner and ended up paying the tab. You're probably thinking, "Who are these guys, and where have they been all season?" You're not the only ones.
"Well, you know this is a surprise for us," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "Maybe they've peaked, I don't know. I think their attentiveness has been great. I think their focus has been very good. They're trying to do things that we're trying to get operated out there on the floor, so those things are good. "
All season the Lakers have played to your worst expectations, because they gave you no other choice. You basically knew when they were going to mail it in or not show up. It was frustrating, but you knew better than to expect anything more from this group after awhile. Anyone who predicted this kind of outburst from the Lakers in the postseason after their season-ending 107-91 loss to the Clippers would have been painted as the biggest homer this town has seen since "Dancing Barry" was roaming the aisles of the Forum. Not even a round-table panel of Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon and Andy Garcia would have predicted a Lakers sweep this postseason.
These players were a bunch of grinders that would have to play a couple of Game 7s if they were to get back to the NBA Finals. But something happened along the way to those do-or-die scenarios. Suddenly the Lakers started playing like they were supposed to. Suddenly the bench, which was chastised all season for squandering leads, began sustaining and (incredibly) increasing leads. Suddenly the most talented team in basketball started living up to its potential and playing with a purpose unseen since around a year ago this time.
Interestingly enough, it took the youngest team in the league, the No. 8-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, to force the veteran-laden Lakers to get out of their comfort zone and understand they couldn't continue playing the way they were if they wanted to win it all this year.
"Oklahoma really, really prepared us," said Andrew Bynum, who continued to battle through a slight tear in his lateral meniscus, scoring four points in 19 minutes. "That was a great young team that we faced. They have super speed, and Kevin Durant is a great scorer and they presented a tough defense against us. They were one of the first teams to front the post, and we couldn't get the ball inside and they were making all the good rotations. Give them credit; they definitely prepared us for what was to come."
For the Lakers, getting past the Thunder was like finding a way to beat Usain Bolt in the preliminary round. They weren't going to face a faster, more athletic team the rest of the way. If Derek Fisher could keep up with Russell Westbrook and if Ron Artest could slow down Durant, they were going to be just fine against anyone else left in the postseason.
"Oklahoma really pushed the tempo, and we really had to get used to that," Bynum said. "Since then, everyone is like a step slower."
Even the Suns, who have in years past been the ones to push the tempo, looked like they were in slow motion against a Lakers team that was running up and down the court and scoring at will, taking a 28-point lead in the second half. Every question mark the Lakers may have had coming into the game -- outside of Bynum's health, which isn't going to get better any time soon -- was answered with an exclamation point Monday night.
Kobe Bryant and his recently drained knee finished with 40 points on 13-of-23 shooting in just 35 minutes.
Ron Artest scored 14 points and made sure the Suns' perimeter players never got comfortable.
And the much-maligned bench, which was incapable of keeping a lead during the season, finished with 44 points, lead by Lamar Odom's 19 points and 19 rebounds. They turned the Lakers' 10-point leads into 20-point advantages and never let the Suns back into the game.
"People might have been concerned about us, but we were never concerned," said Lakers guard Shannon Brown. "We never came out of a game questioning why we lost. We knew why we lost. We never said, 'How did that happen?' We just had to make the adjustments, and we did. Now we're stretching leads and giving our starters rest and having some fun out there."
It may have taken nearly 100 games and seven months, but Lakers fans are starting to have some fun watching their team too, even if they don't know exactly what they'll be getting on a nightly basis anymore.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com
Forget the Lakers you thought you knew; this is a different team.