- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHOENIX -- Their attire before Monday's practice served as a tangible representation of the confidence that the Los Angeles Lakers will bring into Tuesday's pivotal Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns.
"Now's not the time to panic," Phil Jackson's sandals screamed.
"It was only one loss," Derek Fisher's backward baseball cap bellowed.
"We'll be ready when it matters," Kobe Bryant's designer sunglasses proclaimed.
The Lakers' coach and two co-captains brought the right blend of focus and nonchalance with them to the gym, having already paraded through four postseasons together and ended up as the last team standing.
There was plenty to be concerned about in Sunday's 118-109 loss to the Suns that found Phoenix back in the series, trailing 2-1 with a home game looming for Game 4 where it has won five straight at US Airways Center and 13 of its past 14.
But all those concerns are correctable with the right approach. The Lakers shot just 31 percent against the Suns' zone defense, going just 9-of-32 on 3-pointers and tallying 17 turnovers, many that came from trying to do too much. They also looked exposed on the defensive end, allowing an aggressive Suns team to shoot 42 free throws and a man-on-a-mission Amare Stoudemire to score 42 points.
"We're doomed," Bryant deadpanned, believing his sarcastic statement about as much as he believed when he said after scoring 40 points in Game 1, "I'm old, what do you expect?"
Whenever this Lakers team loses a game, what with its talent pool so deep and its experience so extensive, there is a tendency to find more at fault with it than there really is. Likewise, when the Lakers win -- as they had done eight straight times to close out Oklahoma City, sweep Utah and jump out on Phoenix 2-0 -- the praise gets piled on.
Jackson, Fisher and Bryant navigate those highs and lows to keep L.A.'s ship on track, keeping its bow pointed straight ahead toward June.
"I don't think it changes, it's still the only game that matters really," Fisher said. "If we won [Game 3], we come in here today and we're like, 'We want to close this out, we don't want to extend the series, let's just finish this off,' so you lose [Game 3] and you're disappointed, you don't like it, but you still want to come back tomorrow with the same mentality of 'We want to win.' But, at least for me, I'm not looking at it like the implications of if you don't win, 'Oh my gosh, now we're in trouble.'"
The Thunder were supposed to be too fast and too young. They supposedly had figured out how to beat the Lakers in Games 3 and 4 of the first round by taking advantage of transition opportunities to stuff the ball down the Lakers' throats before Bryant & Co. could set up their killer half-court defense.
The Lakers adjusted. They took better shots on offense to reduce Oklahoma City's run-out opportunities, then made it a team priority to sprint back on every possession. Novel concept, right? L.A. simplified the game to allow its superiority in skills to surface.
The Lakers will look to do the same thing on Tuesday. They will look for more opportunities to penetrate the zone rather than just make risky passes into it or settle by shooting over it. They will use the same principles of their triangle offense -- to swing the ball from side to side on the court to create an overload in their favor -- that they would employ against a man-to-man defense. On defense, they will move their feet, stop hacking at the ball and maybe even slide in front of Stoudemire to take a charge or two.
"We have a tough group," Fisher said. "We'll be able to make some adjustments and come back with a better effort. On the road you just want to have a chance to win the game at the end. It wasn't close enough with two minutes left. Like Game 6 in Oklahoma City, we won that game on a tip-in by Pau [Gasol] because we were close enough to do that. On the road, in the playoffs against the best teams, you have to be in position, and I think we'll make some adjustments to hopefully be in position to get that game."
All three members of the Jackson, Fisher and Bryant triumvirate preach the importance of staying in the moment. A win is one win. A loss is one loss. Talk of a Finals rematch with Boston was premature. (Just look at how the Magic stole Game 4 of the East finals on the road.) Talk of the Suns is the only thing that matters.
"We just have to be concerned with this one right now," Jackson said. "This is the only thing there is, is the Phoenix series. If you don't stay focused on that, there's nothing else. So you have to play immediately for this series. Forget about whatever else is down the road."
Jackson, who has had his lofty $12 million salary turned into sports-radio fodder this postseason with reports that the Lakers don't want to pay him that much next year while the Bulls, Nets and Cavaliers might, was asked whether he gets excited for this time of year because zapping a zone defense is how he can really earn his keep.
The man in the sandals adopted the same sarcasm as the guy in the sunglasses when he answered.
"It's so much fun, I can hardly wait for [Game 4]," Jackson said.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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