Thunder Series a Distant Memory as Lakers Hit Groove
LOS ANGELES -- When those on the Lakers got up following a 110-89 April 24 pounding in Oklahoma, they weren't singing, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.''
The team's season was at a crossroads. After a lackluster 4-7 finish to the regular season, the top-seeded Lakers were tied 2-2 in the first round of the playoffs with the No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Everybody was wondering, what's wrong with the Lakers? How much was Kobe Bryant hurting after that strange Game 4 in which he didn't take a shot for the first 15 minutes?
Lakers forward Pau Gasol challenged his teammates that night. He said they needed to win Game 5 of the series "convincingly.''
So let's flash forward a little more than three weeks. What's wrong with the Lakers?
What's wrong with Kobe?
Or at least so says the one with the balky knee. And the stat sheet backed him up after he scored 40 points in the Lakers' 128-107 win Monday night over Phoenix in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at the Staples Center.
"I think the Game 4 was tough in Oklahoma,'' said Gasol, looking back at how far his team has come since then. "We got our butts kicked, and we woke up. That feeling in the locker room was really rough on us. It was a good moment for us to get over.''
The Lakers paid heed to Gasol's challenge and won Game 5 111-87 over the Thunder before closing out the series 95-94 in Game 6 on Gasol's last-second tip. They swept Utah in the second round, and now the Lakers are looking as if Shaquille O'Neal is still playing for them.
Their seven-game winning streak is their longest in a single postseason since the 2001 Lakers outfit, led by Shaq, won the first 11 games en route to a 15-1 postseason.
"I think we just got better,'' Bryant said of what's gotten into the Lakers since they were Thunderstruck in Game 4. "We just improved as a team. That's what the playoffs are about, trying to get better game to game, round to round. That's what we're doing a good job of so far. We've got to keep it going.''
If Bryant gets any better than he was Monday, the Lakers quickly will deep six Phoenix. He shot 13 of 23, needing just 35 minutes to get all his points.
But the Lakers would have won even if Bryant had just an average night. The Lakers' big men, with reserve forward Lamar Odom ringing up 19 points and 19 rebounds, dominated the Suns.
Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry cracked before the game that "size matters.'' It turned out to be no joke.
With 7-footers Gasol and Andrew Bynum starting and the 6-10 Odom coming off the bench, the Lakers outscored the Suns a staggering 56-36 in the paint. They out-rebounded them 42-34.
The Lakers have gotten their wake-up call. And the Suns know it.
"The difference I think is Kobe is getting healthy, and he has more attention,'' Phoenix forward Jared Dudley said of Bryant, who missed four of the final five regular-season games with swelling in his right knee. "I think in the playoffs they take it up a notch. In the regular season, they want to get home-court advantage, but they cruise a bit from time to time. Kobe has taken it on his hands to be aggressive, to be a threat out there and try to make the other players better.''
The Los Angeles Times had reported before Monday's game Bryant needed to have his knee drained and had not been practicing. But Lakers coach Phil Jackson shrugged it off as "old news,'' saying the knee was drained "a while ago'' while not being more specific.
Bryant, also playing with a fractured right index finger, has shown few signs lately of somebody breaking down. He's scored 30 or more points in six straight games, averaging 33.3 during that stretch.
"It felt fine,'' Bryant said of his knee when asked about wearing a sleeve Monday. "I was wearing a sleeve the entire playoffs. Now, people are so observant to pick up on it tonight.''
So let's assume Bryant, who joked having his knee drained just resulted in "lost weight,'' feels a lot better now than he did during that strange night in Oklahoma when he went on a shooting strike and finished 5 of 10 for 12 points. And Odom was right when, while in a funk to start the playoffs, he said last month the Lakers are good enough to advance deep enough in the postseason for him to get his game back.
Odom said having a week off since closing out Utah on May 10 really helped him. But the Lakers already were starting to click before then. And the Suns, it must be said, had one more day of rest after sweeping San Antonio on May 9.
"We're playing as best as we have all year right now, but we still have a lot of work to do,'' Bryant said.
If the Lakers play the way they did Monday, they don't need to get better. It's good enough to win a second straight NBA title.
And to think this surge really started in Oklahoma, of all places. It was a state the Lakers never had visited for the postseason and they ended up for a while in a state of confusion. The Thunder fronted the Lakers' post players, and made them work harder to take advantage of their size.
"Oklahoma really prepared us,'' said Bynum, who is battling a small cartilage tear in his right knee and is actually one of the few Lakers players who hasn't shown improvement since that series. "That was a great young team. ... They fronted our posts so we couldn't get the ball inside. ... They really pushed tempo against us, and we had to get used to that. Everybody has been kind of like as step slower (since then).''
Wait a minute. The fast-paced Suns look slow in the eyes of the Lakers? They sure did Monday.
Lately, the Lakers have had a lot of beautiful mornings the day after games. If it keeps up, it will be the Suns who soon set.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson