Lakers maintain confidence they can beat Celtics
Upon entering the locker room, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson didn't see lowered heads. When he talked to his players, he didn't hear murmured responses. And when the Lakers' dissected their 92-86 Game 5 loss in the NBA Finals to Boston, most of the discussion entailed how close they came to a victory rather than how plenty of poor lapses contributed to the defeat.
"We had a spirited locker room at the end of our session there," Jackson summed up.The Lakers are carrying that positive attitude 3,000 miles from Boston to Los Angeles where they will play Game 6 Tuesday night at Staples Center. It's a mindset that rightfully recognizes the Lakers still have home-court advantage, ignores the reality the Celtics are one win away from capturing their second championship in three seasons against the Lakers, or both. I've said it all along that the Lakers' biggest strength and weakness this season has involved their level-headed attitude following both wins and losses. It's good because the Lakers' success hasn't distracted them from their season-long goal of attaining a title, while the team has mostly prevented implosion from happening during adverse moments. It's bad because the attitude often revealed the Lakers' arrogant attitude that they can easily correct their problems, even if statistics and trends had proven otherwise. We'll soon find out whether the Lakers' calm and confident approach pays off, or if it leads to a disappointing end of the 2009-10 season.
One thing at least remains clear: The Lakers don't need to be reminded what's at stake.
"If I have to say something to them, then we don't deserve to be champions," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. "We're down, 3-2, go home, win one game, go into the next one. Simple as that."It's hard to gauge what will happen beginning with Game 6, which could either end with Staples Center suddenly going silent or the Lakers living on for at least Game 7. Many reporters, including myself, predicted this series would go at least six or seven games. There weren't many, however, who anticipated such conflicting pendulum swings to happen throughout the series.
The Lakers' Game 1 victory featured plenty of offensive balance, Ron Artest tussling with Paul Pierce and Pau Gasol proving he's a much different player than in the 2008 Finals. The Celtics then stole Game 2 with Ray Allen breaking the Finals record in three-pointers made (eight), Rajon Rondo recording a triple double and the Lakers folding down the stretch (Let's not forget the overly involved officiating in both games). The Lakers retook home-court advantage in Game 3, thanks to Derek Fisher's late-game theatrics, while the Celtics responded in Game 4 with a solid bench effort. The Celtics strong supporting cast earned them a Game 5 win, and largely contrasted how the Lakers featured plenty from Bryant but little from everyone else.
There's a pretty simple reason Derek Fisher believes the team can win, which goes beyond the fact that the Lakers are at home and are 9-1 at Staples Center this postseason.
"Because we're good," Fisher said. "The past is the past. There's nothing we can do about the first five games during the Finals. They're in the books. So basically just change your focus to Tuesday night."
But that also involves improving in several areas based on what was seen in their Game 5 loss. Bryant received little help to complement his 38 points, with Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum all disappearing offensively and defensively. Gasol has been fairly consistent all postseason, but Odom and Artest have mostly been non-factors offensively in the Finals. Bynum has provided a much-needed presence inside, but it's unknown how much he can produce and how much he can play with the torn cartilage in his right knee. Yet with the Lakers having all those problems in Game 5, they still managed to remain close with Boston.
"We're in a good situation," Gasol said. "As tough as it is losing these last two games, we're going to fight for a championship at home. We're in a position that I think we would all be happy in being at the beginning of the season."
And it's a position that leaves Celtics Coach Doc Rivers equally excited and nervous. He sees no sign his team is thinking too far ahead and likes the team's 6-3 record. But he's also well aware from his personal playing days the perils of false comfort. Rivers vividly remembers as a member of the 1994 New York Knicks how Houston beat them in the NBA Finals after facing a 3-2 series deficit. And there's this statistic: The Celtics' 1-7 record in close-out games suggests they may face another unfavorable outcome.
"It's going to be a hell of a challenge for us because they're going to be great," Rivers said. "We're going to have to beat them at their best because they're going to be great there, and we can't expect anything else."
And the reason for that directly correlates to the Lakers' optimism, which remained at an all-time high during post-game interviews in the locker room.
"It's part of our personality as a team," Odom said. "We're getting ready to go home, do what we have to do on our home court and we'll be all right."
Photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol and point guard Derek Fisher show little emotion when leaving the TD Garden court after a 92-86 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 5 on Sunday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Lakers point guard Derek Fisher beats Boston power forward Kevin Garnett to a crucial jump ball in the final minutes of Game 5 on Sunday. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.