LOS ANGELES -- Two straight games, two straight losses and an identical scene in the Lakers' locker room: Kobe Bryant, a black bathrobe draped around him, seated at his locker with his feet in an ice bucket and not a care in the world.
In a season of flash and fluff, of instant analysis and hand-wringing over meaningless November losses, Bryant and the Lakers are trying to stick to substance. The Nuggets got them on the road Thursday night, because that is what the Nuggets do, and then the Suns of Steve Nash and Hakim Warrick came to Staples Center and played pop-a-shot to the tune of a nearly historic 22 3-pointers made. Bryant's response: "Congratulations."
|Kobe Bryant says of Shannon Brown and his L.A. teammates, 'We're a pretty even-keeled group.' (Getty Images)|
After their 8-0 start, which saw Bryant making friendly wagers over when the media talk would begin about winning 70 games, the cool splash of reality came with back-to-back losses to teams that were supposed to be fading from the playoff picture in the West. The Suns lost their superstar, Amar'e Stoudemire, and if not for torrid 3-point shooting they looked as lost without him as Stoudemire does without them. The Nuggets are shorthanded and dealing with the reality that they may have to ship Carmelo Anthony somewhere before he ships himself.
Drama, drama all around -- except in L.A. Except around the team that invented it.
"We're a pretty even-keeled group," Bryant said, "so 8-0 wasn't a big deal to us. You just go out there and play, do your job and just go from game to game."
For the Lakers, Heat, Celtics and Magic -- the four certain title contenders in a league of 30 -- the game-to-game grind never has been this scrutinized. Yet while the guys in Miami are wound tighter than a drum, the Lakers aren't fazed. They know what they have. So does an opposing head coach, who told me, "Nobody's gonna beat those guys."
The landscape has changed, Bryant has aged, but the mission is the same as it was for the Kobe-Shaq teams early last decade. And that has less to do with the formation of the Miami Hype Machine and more to do with Bryant.
"From the standpoint of them having a great team, it's motivation because we know what's out there," Bryant said. "It's an obstacle that we could potentially face. But I'm already as motivated as I was last year, as I was the year before. I'm still going to play the same way regardless. I don't need that stuff. That stuff is fluff."
Substance is what the Lakers stick to, with the exception of the past two games: Defend with sound concepts, run the triangle, move the ball and get good role play from a bench that's better than last year's. Everything else is window dressing. Fluff.
"You guys kill me," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said, mocking the requisite what's-wrong-with-the-Lakers questions after the game. "Is the season over for them now? It's one game. We made 22 threes and had to hold on to beat them. I think they're OK."
OK, and in some ways, better off than the Lakers team that was going for a three-peat in 2001-02. Five teams in the West won 50 games that year, including No. 1 seed Sacramento, which won 61. The Lakers won their third straight title without home-court advantage, but their run ended the following year, when two teams not named the Lakers won 60 games in the West -- Dallas and San Antonio.
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"Back then," Bryant said, "once we got through the West, we knew the East was going to be a cakewalk."
With Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer out of the West, all the teams that can seriously challenge the Lakers play in the eastern time zone. (Though Phil Jackson took issue with the significance of Boozer's departure, saying, "The kid behind Boozer [Paul Millsap] was hurting us more than Boozer the last two playoffs.") Still, the Lakers only have to beat Miami, Boston or Orlando in the Finals -- not all three.
"There's always a couple of great ones that you'll have to face to get that championship," Bryant said.
Drama isn't the only thing missing from these Lakers. Bryant's villain status is gone, too -- having traveled to South Beach with LeBron and his talents. Bryant has always worn the black hat well, yet now that role belongs to LeBron, the new heir to Michael Jordan's throne who was accepted by the public so much more easily than Bryant until the enormous missteps of this past summer.
"In terms of what it used to be for me, it's not the same," Bryant said. "And I don't think it has anything to do with LeBron's situation. ... I think it's perception in terms of who I played with. I played with Shaq, and that rift that we had separated my group, my following. You're either pro-Shaq or pro-Kobe. It was a very divisive thing."
Now, all the hatred is directed toward Miami, where LeBron and Dwyane Wade are great pals until it comes time for someone to win a conference finals game with one possession left in Boston or Orlando. All eyes are on the Heat, while the champs don't have to spend a minute thinking about them until they meet on Christmas Day.
"Everybody's aware of what they've done and the talent they've gathered," Lakers reserve Matt Barnes said. "But right now, with the slow start they've made, it doesn't surprise me. ... Chemistry is a big thing. You can't just throw a team together and expect them to do well -- especially in the Eastern Conference with Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, teams that have been together a while that have great chemistry. Even though you're putting three All-Stars together, it's still a team effort and it's still going to take some time to get to know and really have an identity."
So in tune are the Lakers with their identity that they're still running the same play out of timeouts that Jackson ran for Jordan in Chicago. He runs it for Bryant, now, and it's called -- cover your ears, kids -- "what the ----." That's literally what the play's called when Jackson barks it out from his elevated chair on the Lakers' bench. It's a back-screen for Bryant -- in the spot once occupied by Jordan -- and if the defender fights over it, he drives to the basket. If the defender goes under the screen, he shoots a 3-pointer.
But according to a Western Conference coach, Jackson isn't running all of Jordan's plays for Bryant late in games. In fact, he's giving Bryant more freedom than he ever gave Jordan. The Bulls, according to the coach, ran the triangle all the way down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Now Jackson either calls set plays for Bryant or lets him freelance.
"I don't really know," Gentry said, when asked if he had noticed that nuance. "I wish I could answer that. I just know that to me, that guy is as good a clutch player as anybody since [No.] 23. If I had to have a shot to win a game from anybody in the league, it would be him."
Which is one thing about the Lakers that hasn't changed.