Moving forward

Here’s the story I just filed on the Lakers mood today, following their exit interviews with Phil Jackson and Mitch Kupchak

By Ramona Shelburne
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO – The taste in their mouths was still sour, two days not being nearly enough time to wash away their disappointing loss to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. No, that was the kind of loss that sticks with you deep into the summer months, the 39-point drubbing in Game 6 only adding an extra dash of humility to the already oversized bitter pill.

It hasn’t been easy to swallow. Not with pundits questioning their toughness and character, labeling them as “soft,” or wondering aloud whether all of the ways the Celtics beat them in the NBA Finals have exposed weaknesses in them that cannot be fixed by a year of seasoning or a different set of X’s and O’s.

But somewhere in the hours between their season-ending loss in Boston Tuesday night, and their season-ending exit meetings Thursday with Lakers coach Phil Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak, the first painful attempts at digestion took place.

“Not to say that the loss doesn’t sting, because it does and it will, but I get back up pretty quickly and start thinking about revenge,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said, sounding a about a thousand times more positive Thursday than he did after the Game 6 loss.

“I think what it does for us, is it teaches us how to win. The hunger was there, but Boston’s experience wore us down a little bit. We have a team here that’s very good. Boston played better, they played more physical than we were, but at the same time, you look around at our roster and they’re still kids, they’re young kids.

“Being that we got this deep in the playoffs, with such a young club, helps us tremendously because it puts us ahead of the curve.”

The question is, does this kind of loss, particularly the last loss, do any lasting psychological damage?

Pau Gasol, the target of many of those criticisms during the Finals, didn’t seem to think so.

“I think we could’ve been a little tougher, a little more physical,” Gasol said. “In Game 6, they came out really hard. They had the opportunity to go out and get that championship and they went and got it.

“But at home, I don’t even think it was even a factor. I think we played more physical and dominated more.

“So that’s why I don’t really pay too much attention to the media. They blow with the wind. When you win, you’re the king of the world. If you don’t play a good game, all of a sudden you’re soft.

“I don’t think a team that plays in the Finals, and beat Denver, San Antonio, Utah. I don’t think you can question whether they’re soft. I don’t think a soft team could get to the Finals, period. If somebody thinks otherwise, I think you should check yourself.”

For the normally polite, intellectual Gasol, that last statement is almost shocking in its feistiness.

How then to channel that emotion? To turn humiliation into motivation?

Just about every Laker who met with Jackson and Kupchak came out of their offices talking about a renewed commitment to defense as a starting point.

“We feel, to get over that final hump, defensively is where we need a major improvement,” small forward Luke Walton said. “We feel we have the type of guys who can play that kind of defense, but in the Finals we kind of fell apart a little bit.

“So I think that’s going to be one of our main focuses next year. It’s going to be one of those things … that we can start on from Day 1 and get a lot better at.”

For the most part, the Lakers will return intact next season. The only regular players who have contract issues to settle are restricted free agents Sasha Vujacic and Ronny Turiaf, both of whom said Thursday that they’d like to be back next year if possible.

“I hate to lose and I’m not going to hide it, but we did a lot of positive things,” Vujacic said. “It’s painful, and it’s not going to be forgotten. It’s going to be the sour taste within us for a long time, and hopefully when we play them next we won’t forget what happened.

“But that’s the saying, `You can’t win the Finals without losing it first.’ ”

In the coming weeks and months, Kupchak and the Lakers front office will have to decide if the team, as it’s currently assembled -with a healthy Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza factored in– can make the adjustments necessary to first get back to the NBA Finals, and then win them. Or, whether outside help is needed.

There have been rumblings out of Sacramento that defensive-minded, but erracticly-behaved guard Ron Artest might be willing to opt out of his current deal and sign with a contending team for the midlevel exception.

Artest is close friends with Lakers forward Lamar Odom, and was spotted at several Lakers playoff games this year, to add little extra intrigue to the discussion.

But those are decisions the Lakers will have to make in the next few weeks, once the pain from the end of the season has dulled a bit, and time has allowed for reflection and reasoned analysis.

After a year that began with tumult and strife as Bryant’s frustration boiled over in a paroxysm of public anger, and ended just two wins short of the NBA’s summit, Bryant said there was no hurry for answers, nor would he suggest any to Kupchak as he had a year ago.

“I’m comfortable with what we have,” Bryant said. “Whatever Mitch decides to do, he decides to do. I’ll leave it up to him. He’s done a great job of building this team.

“We just need to relax and take our minds off the game for a little while.

“It’s going to be tough, but I’m happy to know we’re invited to the party. When you’re invited to the party, whether you dance with a hot chick is on you. You can pull the beautiful woman, or you can pull one that’s not as good looking. You can get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, or you can go to the championship.

“I’m just glad we’re invited to the party again.”

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