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Monday, May 10, 2010
Lakers back on championship track

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest
After side-stepping a shocking Round 1 upset, the Lakers are once again looking like title contenders.

If their uniforms said anything other than "Lakers" on the front, the only things that would matter would be their five-game winning streak in the playoffs, their opportunity to close out a second-round sweep of the Utah Jazz and their pending third consecutive trip to the conference finals.

It's because they do wear purple and gold, and because any season that doesn't add to the banner collection in Staples Center is considered a failure, that we continue to ask if it will be enough to win another championship.

The judges might make deductions when scoring L.A.'s routine because its two road victories have come by a total of two points. The Lakers were within tenths of a second, and a couple of fortuitous bounces of tapped rebounds, from facing a Game 7 against the Oklahoma City Thunder or a potential series-evening game against the Jazz.

"It doesn't matter," Kobe Bryant said. "You've just got to win the games. Gritty, ugly, blowouts or not, you've just got to find a way to win."

The way to win in the playoffs is by defending and rebounding … and the Lakers are the top team in the playoffs in rebounds, blocked shots and opponent field goal percentage. Add to that the apparent rediscovery of Ron Artest's shot and you know the reason Bryant had that smirk on his face after Wes Matthews' last-second tap bounced off the rim and the Lakers escaped with a victory in Game 3.

"We're getting there," Bryant said. "Every series we just try to get better each series. That's all we're trying to do here. I feel like we're a much better team now than we were in the Oklahoma series."

To be specific, they're a much better team because of the Oklahoma City series, when the Thunder's athleticism and growing confidence put the defibrillator paddles to the Lakers and jolted their hearts back to a playoff-level rhythm.

Without any grandiose fanfare, the Lakers have arrived. They're back to their regularly scheduled programming, using the same method that made them the league's best team back in November. They are the only team with two 7-footers in the starting lineup and the only team with Kobe.

And Kobe is finally close to being Kobe again. He has scored at least 30 points in each of the past four games and is shooting 54 percent in that span. He's looking like the guy who was on track for the highest field goal percentage of his career until he broke a bone in his finger, until he sprained his ankle and until his knee started bothering him.

Bryant says he won't be back to 100 percent, but he can get to 90. The three days off between Games 2 and 3 did him a world of good, and if the Lakers finish off the Jazz on Monday night, they won't start the conference finals until the weekend.

The Jazz will put up a fight -- "They're a trench team," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said -- but even with Andrei Kirilenko back in Game 3, they just don't have enough to beat the Lakers.

Looking ahead to the next round, the undersized Phoenix Suns await after they swept the San Antonio Spurs. The Suns are a favorable matchup for the Lakers, and are probably the team the Lakers most wanted to face from that side of the bracket, considering L.A. won the regular-season series 3-1 and the Spurs, Mavericks and Trail Blazers each beat the Lakers the last time they played.

The Lakers are far from invincible. Kyle Korver became the latest reserve player to single-handedly outscore the Lakers' bench when he poured in 23 points on Saturday. The Lakers can't seem to get everything going at once, and the emergence of Artest and a breakout performance by Derek Fisher in Game 3 was necessary when Andrew Bynum didn't score and Lamar Odom had only eight points, his seventh single-digit output in nine playoff games.

But the Lakers don't need everyone at all times, just enough on occasion.

"You have to have three guys playing on offense at least," Jackson said. "You can't just have Kobe and everybody else feasting off what he does."

Pau Gasol had 17 rebounds. Artest made 4 of 7 3-pointers. It kept the Lakers right in the game and allowed Bryant and Fisher to go all "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" on the Jazz with two killer 3s in the final minute.

The Lakers haven't been as impressive as the Orlando Magic, who have humbled the Atlanta Hawks and have the size to match up with the Lakers' front line and a point guard to exploit the Lakers' greatest vulnerability. The Cleveland Cavaliers also have big men to battle the Lakers up front.

But if the Lakers were to lose in the NBA Finals, it would be because a better opponent came along, not because they self-destructed. They're as ready as they're going to get.