Rings bring in a new Laker season
Defending a championship is about finding a stride, exerting just enough energy to rack up the regular-season victories required for a high seed in the playoffs while maintaining a reserve that will allow you to flourish once you get there.
So in some ways the key to repeating is actually figuring out how to do less, not more.
It's the same quirky logic that says one of the hardest games to win is on the same night you receive the official testimonials that you are the best team in the league. The Los Angeles Lakers were barely above .500 (5-4) in their previous nine home openers coming off a championship season in this town, and Tuesday's 99-92 victory over the Clippers -- on the night they unveiled the newest golden banner and handed out the saucer-sized rings with the 15 diamonds (one for each of the franchise's championships) and welcomed back past L.A. champions from Jerry West to Robert Horry -- was much choppier than a 96-76 smashing of the Portland Trail Blazers in the season debut last year.
"I think some of the energy is always difficult to maintain [on ring night] because there is a lot of energy that's dissipated," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has a 10-ring collection of his own between his time with the Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. "I think when you got out in that and have that kind of ceremony and this kind of reliving the last year, and you're not ready to step up and march to the tune of this season right yet. We got it back. We did OK."
We did OK. That will probably be the operative quote from many of his postgame press conferences this season, as the Lakers figure out how to get by like Talib Kweli. It's about procuring victories on nights they get outshot (45% to 41%) and outrebounded (51-47). It's about the starters overcoming a negative plus/minus from four of the six reserves who played. They got by without Pau Gasol (hamstring) against a Clipper team that just learned it will be without prized rookie Blake Griffin for six weeks.
The sharp teams figure out that if they can keep it close, then a five-minute burst of quality play at a strategic time is all it takes to win against most teams. The Bulls in the early 1990s knew that. So did the Lakers in the '80s. Apparently, this group in gold realizes it, as well. That's exactly what they did at the start of the fourth quarter; Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom did the bulk of the work as the Lakers turned a one-point lead into a 10-point advantage in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.
"I felt like we had control," Bryant said. "Even when it was a one-point game, I still felt like we had control."
Andrew Bynum had already delivered most of the body blows, scoring 23 points through the first three quarters. Then the Lakers have all kinds of options, such as unleashing defensive pit bulls Bryant and Ron Artest on the perimeter players or using Odom and Artest as post-up options.
But most of all, it appears the Lakers have the mentality.
"As an athlete, you approach every game to win," Odom said. "When I play 2K10 or Madden football, I'm like, 'I'm going to win this game.' That's the way great teams think, great coaches think, great players think. And we have all the above in this locker room."
In particular, they have a coach who has followed championships with two more on three occasions. And in Bryant and Fisher, they have two starters who remain from the last NBA team to repeat, the 2002 Lakers.
"I think the one thing that stands out in any season, but in particular a repeat season, it's a very long season," Fisher said. "You have to remind yourself not to get too high when it's good, but not to get too low as well. We know we have a lot of work in front of us. We're committed to doing the work necessary. There are going to be ups and downs. We're going to be tested. That's just a part of doing what we're going to do."
At some point, Jackson will surely repeat one of his favorite phrases from triangle offense guru Tex Winter, the longtime assistant coach who, after suffering a stroke in the spring, returned to Staples Center to pick up his ring (an appreciative crowd gave him a standing ovation): "You are only a success at the moment that you do a successful act."
Fisher already seemed to be looking down the road, while many of the younger Lakers were reveling in their new jewelry. Bynum slipped it on his left ring finger, proclaiming, "I'm married to the game." Odom entertained the media with everything from his take on the Yankees to what he's learned in his new marriage (always say yes).
Bryant wore his ring on the right hand. It's his fourth and clearly the one that he cherishes the most because he, not Shaquille O'Neal, was the driving force behind it. Nevertheless, he will adhere to the same tradition he established for the first three. He'll wear it home from the game on the night he receives it, remove it and never wear it again.
And what does he do then?
"It's on to the next one."
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.