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Lakers say they're pursuing a title, not defending one

May 16, 2010 |  8:00 am


All season long, the Lakers clearly had an end goal of winning another championship. But most of the team may have gone about attaining that goal the wrong way.

"I do think that, at least by our play," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said, "it looked and felt as though we were playing to protect something, as opposed to playing to go get something."

Quickly jump to the postseason and you see the Lakers playing much differently, as indicated by their six-game winning streak entering Game 1 on Monday of the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns. Various factors have contributed to that resurgence,  with Kobe Bryant's improved health resulting in five consecutive games where he scored at least 30 points, Pau Gasol playing consistently, Ron Artest rising on  defense and a semifinals opponent in Utah that had the tools to compete with the Lakers but not enough  actually to beat them.

Also among those factors, Bryant and Fisher observed, was that the team's collective mindset evolved. Before, the Lakers approached their championship run by worrying about defending the 2009 title. Now, Fisher and Bryant say, the Lakers simply are aiming to win another one.This may sound to some like an exercise in semantics, but let Bryant explain why the evolving approach has yielded a significant difference in the Lakers' on-court play. 

"I think it changes the sense of urgency that you play with," Bryant said. "We're not playing tentatively. We're playing aggressively. And we're playing with confidence. You're playing with a certain amount of aggression that you need to win something."

Bryant noticed the mindset changing once the playoffs began. There are plenty of statistics that reveal how the Lakers have played better in the playoffs than in the regular season. But based on the Lakers' playoff performances, the shift actually didn't appear to take place until after the team's embarrassing 110-89 Game 4 loss to Oklahoma City in the first round. 

The Lakers had long played with effort, dating back to April, and it carried through into the postseason. But the first four games against Oklahoma City illustrated the Lakers' inability to establish a definitive pattern. They took Game 1 after taking an early lead and imposing their will inside. The Lakers also won Game 2 because of Bryant's late-game heroics. Bryant's similar approach in Game 3 didn't work. And the Lakers' loss in Game 4 revealed the team's mistakes and ineffective execution overwhelming their frustration. 

So what to make of it? The Orange County Register's Kevin Ding hit the nail on the head at the time, arguing that the Lakers' lacked fearlessness and played as if they were afraid to lose. The concept outlined in Ding's article resonates with what Bryant and Fisher observed with the changed mindset.

Don't get me wrong. I totally recognize the factors that have contributed to the Lakers' confidence.  Part of the Lakers' sweep against Utah simply had to do with the fact the Lakers' had a distinct competitive advantage (size). The stars also have aligned, with the Lakers becoming healthier and having a weeklong stretch before their West Finals matchup with Phoenix, which further has improved the team's injury report.

But the Lakers also have played with a sense of purpose lately, and it doesn't take a sports fan to recognize the benefits of having a win-win mentality. In the workforce, such a mindset results in more creativity and innovation, but a win-lose perspective often spurs people to do just enough to get by -- enough not to get fired or hassled by superiors (think "Office Space"). The same applies to the Lakers. Instead of playing not to get hurt, they have taken the necessary rest to ensure a healthy roster once the West Finals start. Instead of  trying to do just enough against Utah, they put the game away early. Though each contest became closer, the reasons pointed more toward the Lakers' poor bench efforts and the Jazz never giving up.

Interestingly, Lakers forward Pau Gasol had a much different take on the team's approach to winning the title than the assessment shared by Bryant and Fisher.

"You still want to win it no matter what," Gasol said. "That's still your goal and your mindset. No matter what you did last year, you want to win it. You know you're going to be extremely disappointed if you lose it. You know you're going to be extremely satisfied if you win it. So that doesn't change."

But it clearly did. When Bryant shared his observations today, I thought about his assessment of the team following the Lakers' 109-107 win March 9 over the Toronto Raptors. Instead of expressing giddiness about nailing a game-winning shot, Bryant expressed irritation over the team's effort. One of the reasons included how the team had approached the game.

"What we have to do right now is focus on execution," Bryant said at the time. "A lot of times what happens is you get so wrapped up in the length of the season and wanting to win a championship that you overlook the small things."

That surely jibed with what Bryant and Fisher described after Saturday's practice. As was the case in that Toronto game, the Lakers were too focused on the big picture, looking down the road and wondering how they would defend the title. What was important was the current moment, where any positive development or contribution planted the seeds for better play as the season unwound. Though I've mentioned several times that the Lakers missed their opportunity to play at their peak by the end of the season, they've still been able to shift their mindset at just the right time.

-- Mark Medina

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Photo: Kobe Bryant celebrates his and the Lakers' first title in seven years. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times