LOS ANGELES (AP) — Just a couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to be losing their grip on the conference they’ve dominated for nearly three years.
Now that grip looks more like a chokehold again, and only the Phoenix Suns still have a chance to break it.
With six consecutive playoff victories illustrating everything the defending champions do so well, the Lakers earned a week of rest and practice before starting the Western Conference finals at Staples Center on Monday night against Steve Nash’s Suns.
Halfway to the chance to extend his own NBA record with an 11th championship ring, coach Phil Jackson directs the credit for the Lakers’ postseason surge to his veteran roster’s collective playoff wisdom.
“These guys know that you’ve got to save the best for last,” Jackson said. “We’ve generated some energy and got the momentum back in our favor.”
After watching the Lakers’ cool, systematic domination of the Utah Jazz in a four-game second-round sweep, it was easy to forget Los Angeles seemed ripe for picking last month after one of the most unimpressive regular seasons by a No. 1 seed in recent history.
The Lakers won 57 games, yet their 25 losses stuck out much more prominently. They flopped in their Christmas Day showdown with Cleveland, lost an NBA finals rematch at Orlando, and dropped games against several of the West’s top teams, including Dallas and Denver, before closing the season with a dismal 4-7 stretch.
“In playoff basketball, we have another gear,” center Andrew Bynum said. “I think we’re playing like that right now as a team. Collectively, we just picked it up. When we get to the playoffs, we’re focused.”
When eighth-seeded Oklahoma City won twice at home to even the clubs’ first-round series, the Lakers appeared to be injured, tired and scrambling. Instead, they’ve been smooth operators for two perfect weeks, culminating in two victories in Salt Lake City.
The Lakers silenced the Jazz’s notoriously ornery fans by committing just 14 turnovers in those two games combined, making a late rally to win Game 3 before romping through Monday’s clincher. Even when Utah trimmed a 22-point first-half deficit to five points, Los Angeles simply kept executing on offense and working hard on defense, gradually running the Jazz out of their own building.
“I think we’re doing a really good job collectively, and we’re improving as every game goes by,” said Pau Gasol, who had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Game 4, including a reverse layup using Hakeem Olajuwon’s famed Dream Shake move. “We’re just getting better and better. It’s really satisfying.”
They’ve done it with a mixture of superb inside play, punishing defense and a resurgence from Kobe Bryant, who has five straight 30-point games. But the former MVP is doing his scoring with efficiency, a sign he isn’t dominating the ball and hogging the spotlight: Bryant made more than 52 percent of his shots in the series against Utah.
“We just got better,” Bryant said. “We just continued to work. We improved as a ballclub.”
The Lakers had a 36-hour turnaround between their clinching Game 6 victory in Oklahoma City and their second-round opener at Staples Center. They’ll have six days to prepare for the finals after a day off Tuesday.
The break undoubtedly will help the litany of injuries that have limited Jackson to eight healthy players in practice several times over the past few weeks. Bryant said improvements to his injured finger and ankle have allowed him to drive the lane more aggressively than in recent weeks, adding a dimension to his game that sometimes was missing during the regular season.
The Lakers will need every working part available to take on the Suns, although Phoenix shares Utah’s height disadvantages against Los Angeles’ twin 7-footers Gasol and Bynum, along with lanky sixth man Lamar Odom. With Nash at the controls late in what might be the two-time MVP’s last chance at a title, Phoenix’s creative offense should provide more challenges than the disciplined Jazz.
But the Lakers also have a week to stoke their memories of recent postseason run-ins with Phoenix, which knocked Los Angeles out of the playoffs in 2006 — overcoming a 3-1 series deficit — and again in 2007, ending the seasons of Bryant, Bynum, Odom and Lakers reserves Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton.
“They took us out two years in a row,” Odom said. “I’m like an elephant. I don’t forget.”