Commentary

Lakers focused, not the focus

With the heat on a certain team in the East, L.A. can stay under the radar

Updated: October 26, 2010, 3:46 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

In other years there has been talk of monuments and records. Mile-markers on the lonely road toward individual and franchise greatness: Seventy-two wins. Passing Red Auerbach's nine NBA titles. Winning more titles than Shaquille O'Neal.

And when the conversation shifted to other subjects, there was talk of revenge and retribution for what had gone so wrong on that warm mid-June night in Boston in 2008.

But this year, at the beginning, there is mostly talk of endings.

Of Phil Jackson's career, probably.

Of Kobe Bryant's prime, maybe.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillWith less pressure going into this season, Kobe Bryant can have a singular focus on a championship.

Of June and the NBA Finals, because that's all that really matters.

The mile-markers and emotional signposts from Lakers seasons past seem irrelevant now, either because they've already been passed (Auerbach, O'Neal) or they probably can never be passed (72 wins).

In the places where those external motivators once stood, stands a veteran team with a pretty good idea of how to get back to the Finals, how to win the Finals and very little patience for talk of rivals, old or new.

"It doesn't sway us either way," Lakers guard Shannon Brown said, when asked for probably the 200th time this month about what the Miami Heat did in the offseason by adding LeBron James and Chris Bosh. "We know what we have to do.

"We have to play every game like there's a target on our backs because it is. We're still the defending NBA champions for two years in a row."

The Lakers enter this season having proven their mettle to the rest of the league and themselves.

Which makes them, in a way, a little boring.

For once, the brightest lights are focused elsewhere. The pressure and the expectations resting on James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade down in Miami.

Which is, in every way, completely fine with the Lakers.

"It's definitely taken some of the attention off of us," Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw said.

"I mean, it'd probably be a little bit different if Kobe [knee] was 100 percent going in and we had Andrew [knee] and our whole team ready to go so we could send a message right from the beginning. But we're kind of limping into the season so it makes it a little different.

"But that's fine because you want to peak towards the end of the season as you're heading into the playoffs. So we can slowly progress as the season goes on and kind of warm into it."

Had those words come from the mouth of a player, you'd worry about the Lakers turning complacent. But from Shaw's mouth, they seem reassuring.

There's no way a coach would publicly give his team that much leeway if he wasn't supremely confident in its ability to slowly build as the season goes on.

Shaw knows from experience, as a member of the Lakers' last three-time champion from 1999 to 2002.

"I remember [in the 2001-02 season] Phil was always constantly on us about not thinking we can just turn it on when we wanted to," Shaw said.

But this group, this year, seems different.

Veteran, not volatile.

Savvy, not slick.

And perhaps most important, led by Bryant, not O'Neal.

"I think we're good," Bryant said, when asked if the Lakers were ready for the start of the season despite battling injuries all through the preseason.

"We don't want to push too hard. This stage of the year you just want to make sure everybody is in tune mentally in terms of execution and sets and things like that," he said.

"The whole season is all about ramping up. You try and get better. You don't want to come out of the gates playing great. You still want to continue to get better. But the whole season is just a process, it's the evolution of a team.

"The more experience you get, the better you can pick your spots and the more efficient you become."

There's a danger in trusting in your own abilities too much. Too much in the NBA is out of your own immediate control. Injuries, bad luck or misfortune strike down great teams every year. The Lakers need only look at what happened to the Boston Celtics in 2009 and 2010 to see that.

There's also a danger in not trusting your abilities enough. The NBA season is long and hard enough. Adding in external challenges to chase is a waste of energy for a team like the Lakers that knows where it wants to go, and how to get there.

"I think they're ready," Jackson said. "There's a lot of hard work ahead and I think they know that. I think they've kind of measured it and they're anticipating that. But, that daily or nightly pressure that every team is going to bring is something that is really going to have to draw a lot of energy from them. So, we'll see how it starts."

And then we'll stick around for the end, which is all that really matters.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.