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Wednesday, February 15, 2012
When Lakers have fun, it shows

By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com

About an hour before tipoff of the Los Angeles Lakers' game against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, a healthy portion of the Lakers' roster gathered in their lounge to watch the end of the New York Knicks-Toronto Raptors game.

Jeremy Lin
The Lakers were transfixed with the last-minute heroics of Jeremy Lin before their game Tuesday.

The Hawks' most recent game, a loss to the Miami Heat, was playing on the wall-mounted television in the locker room adjacent to the lounge, but game preparation and scouting stood still for a moment. The Lakers were watching the Knicks' Jeremy Lin dribble out the clock at the end of the game against Jose Calderon.

The Legend of Lin grew when the 6-3 point guard swished a game-winning 3-pointer from the top of the key with 0.5 seconds left, and at that second, some 2,500 miles away from Air Canada Centre, the Lakers in that small room in the bowels of Staples Center went berserk.

Reporters waiting in the locker room could hear the roar before their eyes confirmed what just happened when Metta World Peace burst through the door and made his way to the training room to spread the news to any teammates who missed it while getting their ankles taped.

"Linsanity!" World Peace screamed with his hands waving up above his head. "Linsanity!"

Lin's improbable six-game run to stardom reached its pinnacle when we all thought it already had done so against the Lakers, but it was also an instance of pure joy in a Lakers locker room that could use some good cheer.

The Lakers weren't supposed to care. The game they were watching featured the guy who torched them for 38 points (Lin) in a loss four days earlier against the guy who dropped 30 on them (Calderon) two days later when they were barely able to hang on for the win. Furthermore it was a game between two sub-.500 teams in the Eastern Conference.

The last time I can remember the Lakers having that type of reaction while watching a game on TV before they played one of their own was during the 2008-09 season. The Boston Celtics were in overtime against the Indiana Pacers. It was early December and the Lakers had an upcoming rematch with the Celtics on Christmas Day to try to exact some revenge for the 39-point drubbing they received in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals. The Celtics pulled the game out to defeat the Pacers, extending their winning streak to 12. The Lakers cursed at the TV in frustration.

But in both cases, the Lakers were into it. They were fans. It was fun.

It's a serious business for the Lakers these days. With one of the highest payrolls in the league, there's pressure on Mitch Kupchak to make sure they stay a contender. With Kobe Bryant near the end of his career and one ring away from tying Michael Jordan, there's pressure on him to win again. With Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum being dangled in trade scenarios in the past several seasons, there's pressure on the big men to put up or be shipped out. With Mike Brown being the man to replace Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, there's pressure to prove his worth on the sidelines. With Ron Artest changing his name to World Peace, there's pressure to stay relevant as a player or be reduced to nothing but a punch line.

Those pressures were alleviated somewhat Tuesday in the Lakers' 86-78 win against the Hawks. It was an ugly game -- the two teams combined for 59 points in the second and third quarters -- but there was a sense of enjoyment. Bryant and Gasol giggled after successfully playing a two-man game to trick the defense into thinking Bryant was going back door, opening up space for Gasol to hit a jumper. Matt Barnes jumped on the sidelines as he cheered a dunk by World Peace, the man who replaced him in the starting lineup. Josh McRoberts and Luke Walton, both of whom didn't see a lick of playing time, held up three fingers apiece on the bench in celebration when World Peace connected on a 3.

"We got to find ways to make sure we enjoy what we're doing out there all the time if possible," Gasol said after the game. "Obviously there's times when [there is] mistakes and frustration, and it's an emotional game, but the more we have fun doing what we're doing, I think the better off we'll be."

For Bryant, who went from saying he didn't know who Lin was last week to flashing a big smile when admitting he was one of the guys watching Lin's big shot Tuesday, it was harder to let his guard down.

"It's a little different with us though, in terms of having that youthful exuberance, you're not going to find that here," Bryant said. "We've been on teams where nobody liked each other and we won three straight championships so, to me, that doesn't really mean much. I think our group here, we get along with each other just fine and we're all comedians to a certain extent, so we have a good time with each other."

The Lakers' camaraderie shows with rookie Andrew Goudelock, L.A.'s answer to Lin as an unheralded second-round draft pick who has had five double-digit scoring nights in the past 11 games. He's been dubbed the "Mini Mamba" by Bryant. World Peace calls him Allen Iverson. Barnes, Walton and Derek Fisher offer him encouragement. And it's good for everyone involved.

Basketball is a game, after all. Goudelock reminds his All-Star teammates what it was like to come into the league, back when they defined themselves simply as a basketball player and not as a brand. Lin reminds them of what it's like to be a fan, the very ones who fill the seats to watch them for the chance to see something special every night.

"You got to enjoy the journey or it's not going to be the same," Goudelock said. "Every step of the way you got to cherish it and you got to remember, these are things that a lot of people don't get to do and we have a perfect opportunity here. People expect nothing but the best from us, so on that journey we got to have fun. That's part of the game. That's why I've been playing the game for a long time. Now we get paid to do it and it's a lot different, this is our jobs, but before this we didn't have to do it."

The funny thing is, the more the Lakers act like fans every once in a while, the more fans they'll be sure to attract.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.