- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

They looked far less intimidating than expected, and at times during the Western Conference playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers looked downright bad. But despite lopsided losses and indecisive play in the conference semifinals and finals, the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals for the second straight year and the 30th time in franchise history.

Sure, the Lakers’ run to the NBA Finals wasn’t as dominant as expected, but in weathering their fair share of storms they demonstrated the value of experience and proved the cream always rises to the top.

Great isn’t always flashy or shocking. It’s often determined, focused, resilient.

The injury-decimated Houston Rockets landed a few blows in their seven-round bout with Los Angeles, but the Lakers - like the seasoned vets they are - absorbed each one to advance for a date with Denver.

The Nuggets began making believers out of many by stealing Game 2 in Los Angeles and then rebounding from a Game 3 loss with a 19-point victory that tied the series at 2-2. The Lakers’ lag continued for the better part of three quarters of Game 5, and then - as if to say, “Let’s stop messing around with these jokers” - Los Angeles went on a 21-3 run that spanned the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter to dust Denver. The score was 76-76 heading into the final period, but the Lakers outscored the Nuggets 27-18 to win.

It was a given that at some point during the postseason, the experience of last year’s run to the NBA Finals would provide the Lakers a much-needed edge. It was evident which team Friday night at Pepsi Center had been there, done that.

The Nuggets came out in Game 6 looking as if they expected that playing in front of their fans again would do the trick, but they fell flat. At the same time, the squad that had spent too much time watching Kobe Bryant do the dirty work rose up and orchestrated a collaborative effort to punch its ticket to the NBA Finals.

Kobe Bryant’s 35 points and 10 assists, Paul Gasol’s 20 points and 12 rebounds and Trevor Ariza’s three clutch 3-pointers did the trick. The Lakers spread the ball around (28 assists); the Nuggets did not (14). The Lakers ruled the boards 38-27 and shot 24-for-24 from the foul line.

“Well, we saved our best game for last here, or maybe we caught our opponent a little bit off stride in tonight’s game,” said coach Phil Jackson, who is trying to capture his record 10th championship. “But we had the momentum almost from the beginning of the game on.”

Los Angeles promptly seized that momentum because it knew the importance of taking advantage of chinks in an opponent’s armor. The Nuggets, according to coach George Karl, “saw little cracks in the Lakers” but lacked the focus needed to remain on the attack.

“In this game and throughout the series, there’s too many times I think our inexperience was exposed,” said Chauncey Billups, the only Denver player with significant playoff experience.

Los Angeles had the pain of last year’s shortfall to draw upon. Last season the Lakers, whose only legitimate playoff veterans were Bryant and Derek Fisher, lacked the mental and physical toughness to overcome Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the rest of the Boston Celtics in the finals. But this year, having gotten a taste, the Lakers not only have the needed internal fire but also the will to press on.

“I think that’s what I know went through my mind a couple times,” said Gasol, referring to the Lakers’ desire to redeem themselves after last summer’s disappointment. “When I thought I was a little too tired or a little fatigued here or there, I’m like, ‘Look, you’ve got to toughen up, gotta dig deep and get whatever you have out there, because that’s what my team needs.’ And that’s what our team needs.”

And because of the whole “been there, done that, let’s do more” mindset within the Lakers’ locker room, don’t be surprised to see them come out on top this year. And does it really matter whom the Lakers play in the finals?

The Lakers have assets that Orlando doesn’t. They have multiple scoring threats they can count on every night - not just here and there. They have the size needed to cause headaches in the paint. They have the best coach in the game on their bench - and of course, experience.

So while the Magic might be overjoyed to have dispatched the Cavaliers in six games, the Lakers’ mood was, “OK, on to the next step.”

“We’re very thankful being in this position, obviously,” Bryant said. “But [we] did it last year, so we’re ready to move on to the NBA Finals and try to take care of business.”

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