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Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Lakers look to shake '08 memories

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- There was little to be said after Game 5 of these NBA Finals. All the momentum the Lakers had built, all the stereotypes they'd spent two years trying to undo had been flattened in a puddle of green sweat.

They were back in the place they had no intention of ever revisiting, on the stage they'd nervously blinked on two years ago.

It is not a place these Lakers have been very often. Character and guts and hearts exposed to the masses and shoved up against a thick wall.

Kobe Bryant & Paul Pierce
According to teammates, a relaxed Kobe Bryant, right, helped the Lakers' mental approach heading into Game 6.

There have been a few important Game 5s in this postseason, a Game 7 against Houston last year, but none of those games matched the intensity of Tuesday's Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

And yet somehow, they felt it but did not fear it.

"You have to get away from fear, there's no room to be fearful at this point of the season," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said as he walked out of Staples Center having conquered the pressure, for one night at least.

"You just have to remember what you're playing for and get away from any fear."

It's hard to say where they drew composure from, except to say they found it and held on to it in every minute of their 89-67 win.

"You can't be afraid. If you're afraid you've got to pick another job," Lakers guard Shannon Brown said. "We had some guys that were chillin' and we had some guys that were riled up. It was a little bit of everything. ... But mostly we all just wanted to get out there and get the game going."

After two years dominating the NBA as a glittering favorite, and one year reigning as champions, the Lakers' character was back on the line.

Lose to these Celtics again, getting pushed around and outhustled into a limp submission, and this time they'd be branded, not simply criticized.

"This game spoke for itself," Lakers forward Luke Walton said. "Everybody in this place knew how important this was. Losing Game 6 or Game 7 is a failure to us. A failure of a season."

Though they lost to the Celtics in 2008, the Lakers have spent most of the past two seasons as front-runners, fending off challengers and their own demons.

There is little argument they have the most talented roster in the NBA. But after five games in this series, it looked as if they might collapse under the weight of their own expectations.

There were reports of internal combustion in the locker room, fears of confidence collapsing and knees continuing to buckle.

But a funny thing happened on the way home from Boston.

Or actually, the best player on the Lakers started to act as if things were funny instead of dire.

Smiling, though their fans' hearts were quaking.

That would be Kobe Bryant, public grouch for most of this playoff run.

"It was nothing he said. I think just his body language, his approach. He was being light," Walton said. "Obviously light for Kobe is pretty serious for most people, but it's not like he's been cussing and throwing things around.

"He's been joking and laughing. He's been calm. So when the best player in the league, in the world, is calm, it kind of trickles down to the rest of the guys."

Afterward, Bryant would concede no such point.

Asked directly if his public persona belied his private demeanor, Bryant unemotionally said, "Yeah," leaving all details or explanation out.

"The way we look at it, it's just a game we've got to win," Bryant said. "We've been in must-win situations before, so we have to approach it the same way."

Ah, but they really haven't.

Not since 2008 at least, when they trailed the Celtics from Game 1, and always seemed to be searching for a counterpunch to slow down the Celtics' piercing jabs.

If there was confidence to be drawn from their failures of two years ago, no one was claiming that Tuesday night.

If there was motivation to be drawn from a summer wallowing in those failures and the unthinkable idea of trying to do so again this year, they wouldn't admit to it.

"Look," point guard Jordan Farmar said, "we've been playing this game our whole lives. If we respect it and play it the right way, with as much talent as we have, there's nothing to be afraid of."

In two days, they must try to do it again. To play one game, and not the 2008 series over again. To win one game, and not try to avenge old losses.

"Heck, you play this game long enough, you to realize that when you play tight you don't play as well," Walton said.

"You see other teams play tight and they don't play as well so it's more suck it up, let's do what it takes to win and if you lose, you lose. It sucks. But all you can do is just play with every bit of energy you have."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.