- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

The Lakers are now the team we once imagined them to be, actively engaged in the pursuit.

This is their moment, and never mind their 89-71 loss to the Timberwolves last night. It was a mere speed bump. The Lakers secured what they wanted in Game 1, a victory in Minneapolis and homecourt advantage.

This is their season now. This is their championship. The rest of the postseason is so much bookkeeping.

There is no answer for Shaquille O’Neal. There is no answer for Kobe Bryant. There is no third option in the NBA like Karl Malone.

The Lakers were staring into the abyss after the first two games of their series against the Spurs before they reverted to their championship habits of yesteryear.

They rediscovered the necessity of playing defense, of covering the floor with ferocity, suffocating opponents, squeezing the life out of them. In their last five playoff games going into last night, the Lakers had held opponents to 80.6 points a game after allowing 94.3 points a game in the regular season.

This on/off element of the Lakers has come to be one of their characteristics.

The Lakers treat passion as if it is a disposable commodity that should be preserved for only the important occasions of May and June.

O’Neal leads the team in this regard. He can be the disinterested party who worries too much about how many touches he receives on offense. Yet he also can be what no else in the NBA can be, which is a demoralizing stopper in the three-second lane. That is what he is now.

If O’Neal feels inclined to challenge anyone who comes his way near the basket, the Lakers are able to distance themselves from everyone else.

So now the Lakers are where everyone thought they would be after they rolled to an 18-3 record at the start of the season and encouraged whispers of a 70-win campaign. They have found a way to put aside their bickering, their pettiness, their egos and tend to the remaining details.

This team was conceived with only the championship in mind. Anything else would have been deemed a gigantic failure.

If not for Derek Fisher’s one-in-a-million shot in Game 5 against the Spurs, perhaps the Lakers’ renewed sense of purpose would not have been enough to right all the wrongs in their midst almost overnight.

That shot was both lucky and cleansing.

It erased all the doubt enveloping the team in an instant.

No longer was Gary Payton’s uneasy relationship with the Zen master and the triangle offense the topic of the day. No longer was Payton being fitted to be the fall guy, as he would have merited.

No longer was this odd arrangement being treated with mockery.

That was the power of Fisher’s shot, as was the recognition that both ends of the floor require equal amounts of attention and sweat.

The Timberwolves are not really in a position to extend the Lakers, not with Sam Cassell nursing a bad back and Kevin Garnett in a place that took so long for him to reach. There is a maturation process to all this, as the Lakers have shown.

They are that rare team that can play with indifference during the regular season and then muster up a new source of reserve at the appropriate time.

It took the Spurs and a 2-0 deficit to jar the Lakers from their season-long self-absorption.

There was only one team capable of defeating the Lakers this season, and that team always was the Lakers.

They gave it a heck of a try.

Even now, O’Neal says not to worry if Bryant leaves the Lakers after becoming a free agent this summer.

As the de facto general manger of the team, O’Neal says he will place a few calls around the league to lure other Payton-Malone types in search of a championship ring.

As someone seeking a contract extension, O’Neal probably would be wise not to take a swipe at Mitch Kupchak’s authority.

But that is the Lakers.

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