Lakers still on course

L.A. gets lots of time to prepare for Phoenix

The Associated pressMay 12, 2010 

  • Monday's results

    Orlando 98, Atlanta 84; Orlando wins series 4-0

    L.A. Lakers 111, Utah 96; L.A. Lakers wins series 4-0

    Tuesday's result

    Boston 120, Cleveland 88; Boston leads series 3-2

    Thursday's game

    Cleveland at Boston, 8 p.m.

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— Just a couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to be losing their grip on the conference they've dominated for nearly three years.

Now that grip looks more like a chokehold again, and only the Phoenix Suns still have a chance to break it.

With six consecutive playoff victories illustrating everything the defending champions do so well, the Lakers earned a week of rest and practice before starting the Western Conference finals at Staples Center on Monday night against Steve Nash's Suns.

Halfway to the chance to extend his own NBA record with an 11th championship ring, coach Phil Jackson directs the credit for the Lakers' postseason surge to his veteran roster's collective playoff wisdom.

"These guys know that you've got to save the best for last," Jackson said. "We've generated some energy and got the momentum back in our favor."

After watching the Lakers' cool, systematic domination of the Utah Jazz in a four-game second-round sweep, it was easy to forget Los Angeles seemed ripe for picking last month after one of the most unimpressive regular seasons by a No. 1 seed in recent history.

The Lakers won 57 games, yet their 25 losses stuck out much more prominently. They flopped in their Christmas Day showdown with Cleveland, lost an NBA Finals rematch at Orlando, and dropped games against several of the West's top teams, including Dallas and Denver, before closing the season with a dismal 4-7 stretch.

"In playoff basketball, we have another gear," center Andrew Bynum said. "I think we're playing like that right now as a team. Collectively, we just picked it up. When we get to the playoffs, we're focused."

When eighth-seeded Oklahoma City won twice at home to even the clubs' first-round series, the Lakers appeared to be injured, tired and scrambling. Instead, they've been smooth operators for two perfect weeks, culminating in two victories in Salt Lake City.

The Lakers silenced the Jazz's notoriously ornery fans by committing just 14 turnovers in those two games combined, making a late rally to win Game 3 before romping through Monday's clincher. Even when Utah trimmed a 22-point first-half deficit to five points, Los Angeles simply kept executing on offense and working hard on defense, gradually running the Jazz out of their own building.

"I think we're doing a really good job collectively, and we're improving as every game goes by," said Pau Gasol, who had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Game 4, including a reverse layup using Hakeem Olajuwon's famed Dream Shake move. "We're just getting better and better. It's really satisfying."

They've done it with a mixture of superb inside play, punishing defense and a resurgence from Kobe Bryant, who has five straight 30-point games.

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