Kobe Bryant is among the few NBA players who know plenty about winning a championship and successfully defending it. When Bryant stopped to ponder the difference between those daunting tasks, he delivered an unusual amount of effusive praise for the way the Los Angeles Lakers have followed a successful but trying regular season with three weeks of perhaps their best basketball in a year. "They're not thinking about defending a title, they're thinking about winning one," Bryant said when asked how his greener teammates are responding to the stresses of repeating as champs.
With Bryant leading a balanced offence and a sturdy defence, the Lakers have won six consecutive games heading into the Western Conference finals tonight against the Phoenix Suns, who also have won six in a row. Phil Jackson, the Lakers coach, is no stranger to mind games and motivational ploys and sees it all as a function of the mental toughness necessary to persevere deep into the play-offs while other talented clubs cannot keep their heads together.
Judging by the Lakers' response over the first two rounds, Bryant thinks they will maintain that focus. "It changes the sense of urgency that you play with," Bryant said. "You're playing with the confidence and the attention you need to win something." Derek Fisher echoed Bryant's sentiments, saying the Lakers have shifted into play-off mode. "There's been a little bit of an adjustment, at least by our play," Fisher said. "It looked like we were playing to protect something, as opposed to going to get something. I think since the play-offs started, we've been playing more to go get something than to keep from losing something."