- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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They took the summer seriously this time, started miserably anyway and only occasionally resembled the three-peaters people remember, needing all six months of the regular season to climb out of the crater. Yet here they are, having made it back to 50 wins, starting the playoffs from their usual perch: Team No One Wants To Play.
That's not all they are, though.
The Lakers? They're also a Team That Didn't Realize How Hard This Would Be.
"We probably all underestimated that," guard Derek Fisher admits. "I think we anticipated it being difficult, but until you're in the struggle, you can't understand how difficult something's going to be."
Now they know. Sixteen wins away from a fourth successive championship, and the 10th ring for coach Phil Jackson, the Lakers understand very clearly why no team has won four in a row since the Boston Celtics of the 1960s, and why only one coach in NBA history -- Red Auerbach of those same Celtics -- can match Jackson's nine rings so far.
The first obstacle is those blasted 82 games, when you know you'll have to win 16 more for the real prize. A third of the way through, or even two-thirds, the actual postseason still seems far off in the distance. Especially for a group that, twice in its three championship runs, were ushered right to Death's Door, as Jackson himself calls it, and nonetheless managed to calmly flick aside the threat of elimination.
Motivation simply doesn't last long in Lakerdom, not in the regular season. Not even for the hyper-driven Kobe Bryant, who late in the season developed a curious habit of refusing to shoot the ball in the first quarter, under the guise of getting his teammates ready for the playoffs.
"During the season, the players actually came to me and asked me to pick it back up again, be more of a disciplinarian," Jackson recounted Thursday. "I said, 'You guys are going to have to police yourselves this year.' We've got to get through the playoffs in the best possible way, and if I wear myself out trying to police you guys in every situation, it's going to be a mess by the time we get to the playoffs. But we had to step it up in January and we have as a basketball club."
On Nov. 22, the day Shaquille O'Neal returned to work after delaying toe surgery until mid-September, the Lakers were 3-9. On Christmas Night, after losing at home to hated Sacramento, the Lakers were 11-19. Friends of O'Neal suggested that he intentionally delayed the surgery to make the run for four more challenging, and the hideous early record definitely did.
Now, because of their intermittment interest in the tedium of the regular season, the Lakers have to be the old Celtics. They must re-enact the feat achieved by Bill Russell's last title team, in 1969, when Boston beat mighty Philadelphia, New York and the Lakers without homecourt advantage in any series. They are also trying to complete the journey Seattle tried in 1977-78, when the Sonics opened 5-17 and made it all the way to a seven-game Finals before losing to Washington.
If L.A. can complete the resurrection, they'll smash the mark for worst record for a champ after 30 games. That record is 16-14, shared by the 1947 Philadelphia Warriors and the 1948 Baltimore Bullets.
"I would say what we do is gambling," Lakers forward Rick Fox observed. "You start gambling when you say we can be sloppy and inconsistent and still win. That's asking for trouble. But that's what we've done. You crawl through the regular season, searching for reasons to keep going. It's not until you get to the playoffs that it's exciting again."
Said Fisher: "We're trying to do something that hasn't been done in a very long time. We're still confident in our ability to do what we need to do to win games when we have to. But it's tough, man. At times we haven't had the energy. At times we have. At times other teams have just played better than we have."
Yet strangely, suddenly, the Lakers have reached the 2003 edition of the playoffs on a better roll than the '02 edition. Last season, even after the whole team -- Bryant included -- bummed around all summer, L.A. started 16-1. Not surprisingly, with the wins coming so easy, the champs struggled with focus for the rest of the season. This time, despite going winless in four games against San Antonio and seriously flirting with the possibility of having to play the Kings in Round 1, L.A. went a healthy 39-13 after the Christmas disappointment.
Jackson quietly made some unexpected concessions as the season unfolded, gradually showing faith in youngsters like Kareem Rush and Jannero Pargo to inject his brittle squad with a bit of athleticism and energy. Jackson and his coaches have harped on the players for months about passion -- about showing it more often -- which eventually led to the promotion of Mark Madsen to starting power forward in place of the ineffectual Samaki Walker.
All along, Bryant was playing better than ever, as a 30-point man and leading MVP contender for the first time. Then O'Neal, after his 31st birthday on March 6, started moving and looking like Shaq again, regularly scoring in the 30s and 40s. In the six weeks since, as a result, you haven't heard much complaining about the lack of supporting punch behind the leading Zen Men. No one questions now whether Fisher, Fox and Robert Horry will be there for the playoffs' big shots and big stops, like they always have.
If there are concerns, there are only a few -- one old and two new. Power forward, as always, is a trouble spot, as it will be Madsen starting opposite Kevin Garnett in Round 1, with Tim Duncan and Chris Webber possibly looming in Rounds 2 and 3. The other main issues are defense and road ruthlessness, never problems before but potential warts today.
This group of Lakers has always won the big roadies when needed, but L.A. was a 19-22 away team this season. Compare that to a 15-2 road record in the playoffs the past two springs.
Of greater concern to Jackson, meanwhile, is stopping people. That's the overlooked hallmark of the last three Laker squads, but the coach is openly fretting about where L.A. finished in the major defensive categories. The champs were 23rd in points allowed (98.0 points per game), 17th in defensive field-goal percentage (.443) and only figure to be as stingy in the playoffs as O'Neal's mobility allows.
"We're way down the list from where we've been in past years," Jackson said. "We're not there right now and that's a place we have to return if we're going to defend the championship."
The non-surprise in all this is that L.A.'s confidence/arrogance/smugness (pick an adjective) is bubbling back at Full, having survived the harder-than-advertised marathon portion of the chase. The Lakers' time has finally arrived, after an 82-game ride they didn't handle so smoothly, replete with a new best-of-seven format in the first round that favors them even more. Minnesota, remember, has never won three games in a series. It needs four to reach the second round for the first time.
Bryant, asked what he thinks of the competition, never mentioned the Wolves in the days leading up to tourney time. Asked to name the West foe he respects most, Bryant said, "San Antonio and Sacramento are probably tied." Pressed for more analysis of the Kings, the team that almost beat them last June, Bryant added, "They've paid their dues somewhat."
"You don't prove anything against a team like this," Kings coach Rick Adelman concedes, "unless you beat them in the playoffs."
No matter how bad A Team Like This looks in November.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann