Lakers rose from ashes of losses to Phoenix
AP Sports Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) – Kobe Bryant claims his desire for playoff revenge against the Phoenix Suns didn’t even make it back from Salt Lake City.
The back-to-back playoff losses in 2006 and 2007 nearly drove Bryant away from the Los Angeles Lakers, frustrated with their direction and infuriated by a mediocre supporting cast. Moments after Los Angeles finished off the Utah Jazz on Monday, Bryant sarcastically said the Lakers would be after “just a little bit” of payback when the Western Conference finals begin next week.
“Not too many people were here for that,” Bryant said Tuesday after his teammates went through a light workout at the Lakers’ training complex. “I haven’t brought it up yet.”
If Bryant ponders the past three years in a philosophical mood, he actually might want to thank Steve Nash and the run-and-gun Suns.
Although those losses dragged Bryant to the lowest depths of disappointment in his NBA career, they also catalyzed big roster changes and a redoubled intensity – and the Lakers have been in the conference finals every year since. Without those discouraging defeats, the Lakers might not have had the motivation to make the moves that eventually led to another championship banner last season.
Five Lakers still remain from both series, but every key member of the current club realizes the Suns were partly responsible for an ugly period in this 15-time champion franchise’s mostly glowing playoff history.
“I wasn’t here, but because I’m so close with these guys that were here, I’ve taken it on,” said point guard Derek Fisher, who returned to the Lakers in 2007. “Obviously, we can’t take back what happened then. The closest we can get to that is by winning this series.”
Phoenix rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate the Lakers in 2006 – just the eighth time that had happened in league history. The Suns finished off Los Angeles with a 31-point win in Game 7, preventing the Lakers from meeting the Clippers in the second round.
But the real story was Bryant, who took just three shots and scored one point in the second half. Although Bryant always has an alternate explanation, it sure looked like another example of his occasional attempts to show up his teammates’ flaws by taking himself out of the offense.
Bryant had a point, even if he didn’t say it out loud: Smush Parker, Luke Walton and Kwame Brown were in the Lakers’ starting lineup for that loss alongside Lamar Odom, now the Lakers’ sixth man. Bryant’s frustration clearly indicated he didn’t think Los Angeles could win with that makeup.
“That was a tough series,” Odom said. “They’ve beaten us good in the playoffs. The crowd down there loves to see us lose.”
The Suns then knocked off Los Angeles again in the first round in 2007, handily winning in five games while the Lakers barely put up a fight. Bryant again realized he was stuck on a mediocre, stagnant team – and this time, it made him snap.
Bryant spent the summer spouting his anger with general manager Mitch Kupchak to any reporter with a microphone or a notepad. He even said he would welcome a trade from his only NBA franchise, and was caught on video making fun of Andrew Bynum, then the Lakers’ teenage 7-foot project.
Bryant didn’t leave, but his supporting cast changed. The Lakers acquired versatile swingman Trevor Ariza in a trade, and Fisher returned from a three-year sojourn in Golden State and Utah. Bynum and Jordan Farmar also matured into contributors.
And in February 2008, the Lakers made the biggest move of all, acquiring Pau Gasol from Memphis in a trade that put one of the NBA’s elite big men at Bryant’s side. Just like that, the Lakers had the core capable of winning a title – and they’ve finished with the top seed in the West for three straight years, culminating in last season’s title run past Orlando.
“Ever since I got here, this team has been dedicated to winning a championship, so I’ve never known anything different,” said Gasol, who went home early with a minor sinus infection Wednesday. “I knew what kind of team I was coming to. They wouldn’t settle for anything but a championship team.”