Can Lakers Answer 'Tough' Question?
After Being Outmuscled in Finals, L.A. Aims to Be Physical

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

While the Boston Celtics were hooting, hugging and dousing Coach Doc Rivers with Gatorade in the final minutes of Game 6 of this past summer's NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant sat on the other bench expressionless, arms folded. He occasionally glanced at the scoreboard as Boston's lead ballooned. Asked what he was thinking as the Los Angeles Lakers' season came to a bitter end in the form of a 39-point defeat, Bryant said he wasn't especially philosophical or reflective. He was just looking ahead to the next season.

"What else am I going to think about?" Bryant said yesterday, after the Lakers practiced at Sports Club LA in Northwest. "I'm not a 'poor me' kind of guy."

And the Lakers certainly aren't approaching this season with a "poor us" attitude. They know they are really good (they head into tonight's game against Washington at Verizon Center with the best record in the Western Conference at 15-2) and know they are really deep (they welcomed back Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza to an already stacked lineup). With arguably the best coach and player in the game, they are a favorite to win the NBA title.

They also know that Boston exposed a weakness that may have to be overcome if they expect to see a different result in June: toughness.

"Going through what we went through last year, it was such an easy walk for us," Bryant said of his team's playoff run. "It's kind of crazy to say that, in the Western Conference, but it came kind of easy for us. We added Pau [Gasol] to the mix [with a midseason trade] and the rest of us had been playing together. So it was seamless -- boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, Finals. Then you run into a team that is tougher than you, and it's a reality check."

The Celtics roughed up the Lakers for six games, clearing them out of the way for rebounds, using the physical, tree-trunk-thick Kendrick Perkins on Gasol and the tireless Kevin Garnett to harass the rest. Lamar Odom, who was pushed to the bench when Bynum returned, said constantly hearing about how the Celtics manhandled them in the Finals "gets under your skin a little bit." But Ariza said the team couldn't be too upset.

"Because it was true. We did kind of lay down a little bit," said Ariza, the team's high-energy, hustling reserve, who returned from a broken foot late in the postseason. "If we want to be a champion and be able to have a ring, we have to toughen up. After the way we played in the Finals, we all made a conscious effort to come back and be better and be tougher."

That started with players hitting the weight room, but it mostly included the return of Bynum, the 7-foot, 285-pound center who was having a breakout season before suffering a season-ending left knee injury last January. He had to watch the Finals, painfully, believing that he could have made a difference. "I was just thinking, 'I want to go out there and help,' " Bynum said. "The way we got beat, I think, had a lot to do with my position."

Bynum is averaging 13 points, 8.7 rebounds and a team-leading 2 blocked shots per game, forming a lethal front-court combo with the 7-foot Gasol. Gasol said Bynum provides the size and physicality the team lacked against Boston, and Bynum relishes being viewed as the difference-maker who can help push the Lakers over the hump. "I love being in that position, and every night I try to prove them right," he said.

Bynum has helped solve some, but not all, of the Lakers' problems. They opened the season with seven consecutive wins, but in their first loss, to Detroit, the Pistons adapted the Celtics' formula and used Kwame Brown and Rasheed Wallace to wear down the Lakers' interior players. Los Angeles reeled off seven more wins until starting this three-game road trip with a surprising loss at Indiana. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson sat Bynum with 5 minutes 31 seconds remaining and his team leading by seven, and the Pacers grabbed nine of the next 11 rebounds to finish the game. The last rebound was a Troy Murphy tip-in as time expired -- with Bynum on the floor.

Jackson is still imploring his team to make a more concerted effort at the defensive end this season. He said the loss to Indiana was emblematic of four games of lackadaisical effort on defense. Then, on Wednesday, after the Lakers beat Philadelphia, 114-102 -- in a rare 30-point game for Bryant this season -- Jackson lamented, "We are what we are, I guess -- a good offensive team."

The Hall of Fame coach's desire for his team to get better on that end of the floor is understandable. Return trips to the NBA Finals are not guaranteed.

The only team in the past 20 years to lose in the Finals and win the next year was the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons, who avenged a loss to the Lakers the previous season. During the preseason, Jackson told his team that during his nine championship seasons with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls, he faced the runner-up only once, and that was in 1998 against the Utah Jazz, which had lost to Chicago the year before. Since then, the 2002-03 New Jersey Nets are the only runner-up to reach the NBA Finals the next season.

"The rest of the teams fall on hard times," Jackson said of the teams he faced in the Finals. "Either they don't make progress or teams catch up with them. And there is disappointment in the lack of confidence, perhaps, of losing in the Finals and exposing their weaknesses. This is something that we really want to review, and we have to make a better effort than last year."

However, Bryant didn't hesitate when asked if his team was tough enough to win the title. He responded, "Yes."

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