Every April, Lakers fans have to be wondering which team will show up in the postseason.
This year is no exception.
The two-time defending champs face the double dilemma of being at their most vulnerable while the Western Conference is more loaded than it’s been during their reign.
As a result, that annual Finals trip is no longer a safe guarantee.
Oh sure, folks are smart not to count the Lakers out. Everyone’s deferring to them as the West’s favorites and certainly they showed it by going 4-0 against Dallas and San Antonio in the second half
Yet living in Los Angeles, you can feel a different edge about this team. Like there’s more at stake and that championship aura just doesn’t feel as confident as before.
It’s because for the first time in four years, the Lakers face more teams that aren’t scared of them, can match up better and are hungry to prove themselves.
Last year, they entered the playoffs after losing seven of their last 11; they also entered as the No. 1 seed with home court advantage and benefited from seeing their top rivals bounced earlier than expected in the playoffs.
This year’s different.
San Antonio has a great balance of youth and experience; Oklahoma City is now tougher with Kendrick Perkins in the middle; and Dallas, well—they were a threat before the Lakers beat them by nearly 30.
But the more things change, the more they the same.
Namely, all eyes remain on the left knee of Andrew Bynum. The MRI said Tuesday’s injury was a slight bone bruise and he’s expected to play in Sunday’s opener against New Orleans.
It’s another reminder how fragile and unpredictable this playoff run will be. The team will already be without backup point guard Steve Blake until at least the second round due to chicken pox.
It also shows their biggest concern isn’t the revamped Spurs or Mavericks. It’s not the meaner Thunder. It’s not Miami or the Bulls looming in the East with the ultimate matchup nightmare in Derrick Rose.
The Lakers’ biggest threat to a three-peat are themselves and making sure they are motivated and healthy enough to get there.
It’s not about being in cruise control anymore and expecting to roll over the West. It’s about playing every game with a sense of urgency, knowing that this will be the last hurrah and anything less than a parade is unacceptable.
If Kobe and company showed us anything after the break, they’re unbeatable when they want to be. No team can match their frontcourt and Bryant is still the most clutch player around.
But the key word is “when they want to be.”
It’s time for Lamar Odom to remember why he played like the likely Sixrh Man of the Year. It’s time for the Killer B’s (Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes and Blake when he gets healthy) to get consistent. It’s time for Derek Fisher to find that spring clutch gene and tap into one more time.
It’s time for Andrew Bynum to be that force he was after the All-Star break and for Ron Artest to transform into the Queensbridge Strangler not the Lakers' headache. It's time for Pau Gasol to join Bryant in leading by example.
And it’s time for Bryant to go into Black Mamba mode for two more months to solidify his legacy as the best player of this era.
There’s no room for error this time around. History has shown that the third leg of a three-peat is the hardest.
The 2002 Lakers had to survive a thrilling Western Conference Finals with the Sacramento Kings and win Game 7 on the road. The 1998 Chicago Bulls had to survive against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals and defeat Utah in the NBA Finals without home court advantage.
This year’s Lakers team could face their own version of that adversity starting in the second round. That’s why it’s time they flip on the switch like a still wily gunslinger, instead of being treated like the sheriff in No Country for Old Men.
The only thing standing in the way of another Figueroa parade is the Lakers. So like Spike Lee said, it’s time for them to wake up and start resembling the team Lakers fans know they can be.
The road is much harder this time, but it will also be the most rewarding.