Lakers save best for playoffs

The best thing the Lakers have going for them is that so many things have gone against them. They lost six of their first seven games against the current top five teams in the league. They've had three losing streaks of at least three games (Phil Jackson's first five championship teams in L.A. had a total of two three-game losing streaks). They lost to Cleveland. Cleveland.

They have given skeptics and doubters ample reason to believe they won't win a third consecutive championship … which is exactly what the Lakers could use. Having everyone sing their praises and lay rose petals along the path to the playoffs isn't a good way to motivate teams. Athletes are fueled by criticism more than commendation, and this group of Lakers has absorbed more shots than any of their defending champion editions over the past decade.

And within that last sentence resides every reason to believe they can win it again. They're still composed of the same key pieces that won the championship last year. The Lakers don't have to use these playoffs as a test drive to see how well their core can work in the postseason. That's something the Heat, Bulls, Mavericks, Magic -- and as of this week -- Celtics and Thunder can't say. And of all those teams, only the Lakers have yet to play to the best of their ability so far this season.

The playoffs are all about taking your game to another level, about being able to adapt to a slower pace and higher intensity. The Spurs have used a high-octane offense to race to the best record in the league, but is that really the formula for postseason success? Ask the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns. It's quite possible we've already seen the best the Spurs can do.

The Mavericks have taken a different approach, utilizing an improved defense (they're in the top 10 in points allowed for the first time in three years). But they're still a team that has lost in the first round of the playoffs three times in four years.

The Lakers, in contrast, have saved their best for the playoffs. They didn't have the best record in the NBA the past two regular seasons, but they wound up sharing the hastily assembled stages with David Stern in June. It's as if they need the added urgency to elicit their best. They're not the most self-motivated group out there. Now we know what the Lakers needed: the All-Star break. The Lakers won their first three games coming out of the break, blowing out the Hawks, coming back for a road overtime victory the next night in Portland, then running away from the Clippers.

"It's just being conscious of what point of the season we're in and understanding we can't fall back," said Pau Gasol, who missed the start of a practice when an iPhone glitch messed up his cell phone's clock on New Year's Day, but apparently has no problems with his calendar app.

"We can't afford to continue to have games that we lose that we shouldn't lose and games that we just don't play as well as we're supposed to. It's just a matter of understanding that and knowing that there's 20 games left and we can't fall back. We can't afford finishing third, fourth, fifth [in the conference]. That'd be tough."

The Lakers still have work to do in the regular season. They can't catch the Spurs, but they can make up the two-game difference with the Mavericks and avoid the possibility of starting both the conference semifinals and finals on the road. It's not too hard to envision the Lakers stealing a game in San Antonio and holding serve at home to beat the Spurs. We know the Lakers can win in Boston because they did it in Game 3 of the NBA Finals and again this month.

One of the recent trendy notes is that the Lakers haven't won a playoff series without home-court advantage since Shaquille O'Neal left in 2004. It's true, although it's also deceptive. While Shaq was the driving force behind the Lakers' four trips to the NBA Finals in the first half of the last decade, Kobe was usually the one who came up with the big performances on the road.

Does that version of Kobe still exist? That's another question about these Lakers. The common theme is that he's slower, more beholden to the Earth's gravitational pull. But he managed to ascend to a higher place in the sky than the other All-Stars last Sunday, winning MVP honors with 37 points and 14 rebounds. In his first three games after the break he scored 81 points in 98 minutes of playing time. Jackson has limited Bryant to 34 minutes a game this season, Bryant's fewest since he came off the bench in his second year in the league. It was all designed to keep him fresher for the playoffs.

Everything about the Lakers is geared toward winning playoff games. It's what they do.

J.A. Adande is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to e-mail J.A.