Lakers not judging their season yet
DENVER -- The Los Angeles Lakers clinched their third-straight Pacific Division title last week and a win against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night would give them the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs for the third straight year as well. That doesn't do anything for Kobe Bryant.
"I don't care about that at all, I really don't," Bryant said after the Lakers shootaround at the Pepsi Center on Thursday afternoon. "We were expected to win the West. I expected to win the West. I expected us to have the best record in the league. It didn't happen. So, from that standpoint, we're disappointed so far.
"At the end of the day, winning in June is the thing that we really judge our season by. If we don't do that, it's a failure."
Speaking to a pack of reporters that featured a heavy contingent of national media, Bryant did not try to sugarcoat any issues the Lakers are dealing with five games out from the start of the playoffs.
"It's been tough," Bryant said. "It's been like an uphill battle for us. We're not really fretting about it or are overly concerned about it. We are concerned. We're just kind of locking in, just focusing, getting ready, getting healthy and mentally getting prepared for the postseason."
The Nuggets, a team that lost to the Lakers in six games in the Western Conference finals last season and started this season off 2-0 against Los Angeles, were once considered the Lakers' main competition for a right to play in the Finals. Now, with just three games separating the seven teams currently seeded No. 2 through No. 8 in the West, L.A. has to treat everybody as a threat.
"We're concerned with everybody right now," Bryant said. "The way we're playing we're concerned with everybody."
All seven of the other teams in the West that have clinched a playoff berth -- Denver, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio, Portland and Oklahoma City -- have defeated Los Angeles at least once this season. The Lakers have a 15-10 overall record against those teams this season.
There's just a week remaining in the regular season, but Lakers guard Derek Fisher says his team is still searching for who it really is.
"We've yet to identify [who we are] with this particular team, this year," Fisher said. "A lot of people like to say, 'Each team has its own identity.' We haven't quite put our stamp on what our identity is going to be this year. As opposed to comparing it to last year or teams in the past, what are we going to establish as our identity for 2009-10?"
Part of the challenge might come from how the team views itself, starting with the co-captains, Bryant and Fisher.
Bryant started out the shootaround on one end of the gym with this quote: "I think it's because it's a veteran group [a game-in, game-out focus] hasn't been there," Bryant said. "I've been on teams where we've had a great deal of veterans -- myself, Brian [Shaw], Rick Fox, Shaq [O'Neal], Robert Horry -- and it was worse than this group because you have too much experience. You've been through so many wars, you've been through so many battles, you know what the pressure cooker is really like. I think if you look at young teams, Oklahoma City and the like, these boys are up and ready to go every single day. I think the older you get, you tend to slip in and out of that zone more often."
Fisher ended the shootaround on the other end of the gym with this quote:
"Oftentimes we have to remember that we still are a team full of guys that haven't been here before, don't quite know what it takes to be the best again, and again, and again," Fisher said. "One hundred times in a season, you got to be the best and that's a difficult thing to do. We still have a relatively young team in terms of age and championship experience, but it's not something that we're resting on. I do think with the relative youth and inexperience in certain places, there's still a desire to be what we need to be."
Execution vs. intensity
With the West all but secured and the No. 1 overall record already belonging to Cleveland, it seems that on the surface, the Lakers don't have much to play for while seven other teams in the conference jostle for postseason positioning.
"It requires you to be more efficient in terms of your execution, offensively and defensively," Fisher said. "Because at times, some of the natural adrenaline that comes from playing in big games, the passion and certain things that kind of come naturally, haven't been there I think in a lot of situations for us."
Added Bryant: "It's tough to get to that level of intensity. What you have to do is take care of the ball, execute and play the mental game. Hopefully the way we execute mentally outweighs the emotion that they're playing on."
What does Bryant think about the Lakers not having a game since Sunday while the Nuggets played in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night?
"It probably evens the playing field because playing in this arena sucks," Bryant said. "The first five minutes in this place [are] brutal."Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.