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.”

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Ronny Turiaf would like to be back…

But will he?

We just spoke with Ronny after he met with Lakers coach Phil Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak for his season-ending exit interview. Ronny was pretty unequivocal in saying his personal preference would be to stay in LA –he’s a restricted free agent — but that he wasn’t sure what the future would bring.

“If they want me here, I for sure would be more than happy to keep on going on this journey I started about three years ago with all my teammates,” he said. “I built relationships here that are very strong and it would be tough for me to say goodbye to that. But when it comes down to it, this is a business decision for both sides. They have to worry about salary cap issues and I have to find the best situation for me as far as playing time, also as far as the financial situation.

I’m hoping to be here. You can write that in big, capital letters: Ronny Turiaf would like to be a Laker. We shall see what happens, I can’t see the future.”

What next year might look like…

Here’s a quick look at the contract status of the current Lakers. The biggest issues, as I mentioned last night, are Odom, Vujacic and Turiaf.

Who should be back:

Derek Fisher: Signed through 2009-10 season

Kobe Bryant: On-board for next year, but can opt out of his contract in June of 2009.

Pau Gasol: Signed through 2010-11 season.

Jordan Farmar: Signed for next year, team option for 2009-10, restricted free agent after that.

Chris Mihm: Player option for next season. Coming off injuries makes him likely to stay.

Vladimir Radmanovic: Under contract for two more seasons, player option for a third. Hefty salary would make him hard to trade.

Luke Walton: Under contract for five more seasons, would be very difficult to move that contract after subpar year.

Andrew Bynum: Signed through next year, restricted free agent after that. Lakers will need to decide whether to offer a long-term extension.

Who might be back:

Lamar Odom: $14.1 million expiring contract makes him very attractive in trades.

Trevor Ariza: Player option for next year. Lakers love him and will likely want him to stay.

Sasha Vujacic: Restricted free agent. Lakers can match whatever another team offers. They probably will if the price is right.

Ronny Turiaf: Restricted free agent. Lakers like him, but he could get a big offer from another club (like Orlando, Toronto, Golden State) that needs and likes athletic post players.

Coby Karl: Lakers like him, but he barely played and might have to fight off competition from this year’s second-round draft pick.

Who probably won’t be back:

DJ Mbenga: Versatile big man will become a free agent, could end up anywhere.

Ira Newble: Never learned the offense to Phil Jackson’s satisfaction, though the Lakers could’ve used his defensive toughness in the Finals.

Where do they go from here?

Well, at least that loss had some time to sink in, right? But now that this season in the books, where do the Lakers go from here? Was this just a bunch of kids running into a superior, veteran-laden team? Or did the Celtics expose fatal flaws in the makeup of this team.

Phil Jackson seemed to suggest there would be changes in the off-season after the game.

“We have to get some players if we’re going to come back and repeat, to have that kind of aggressiveness that we need,” he said.

How big those changes will be remain to be seen.

Right now, at 4:22 a.m. (EST), just about four hours after the season’s final chapters were written, here are the three areas the Lakers will have to address this offseason:

1. How does Lamar Odom fit into their future plans. Odom and Pau Gasol were outstanding when teamed together the last few months of the year, but with Andrew Bynum coming back, Gasol will slide over to power forward and Odom to small forward. In the Lakers offense, the small forward needs to be a good outside shooter to stretch the defense. Hence, Vladimir Radmanovic’s spot in the starting lineup. Odom told me a couple weeks ago that he’s looking forward to the move, and that he’s going to spend the entire summer shooting 3s. But is this the right fit for his game? That question will need to be answered quickly this summer and next season as Odom heads into the final year of his contract. If he’s not a fit, his expiring contract will be attractive on the open market.

2. How much can they get out of Andrew Bynum. Everything, and I repeat everything depends on how quickly Bynum’s knee recovers from his knee surgery, and how confident the Lakers are that he’ll make a full recovery. If there are any doubts, the Lakers will need to look for a back-up center who can contribute at both ends. Is Ronny Turiaf that guy?

Well, that brings us to No. 3:

Turiaf is a free agent, and while he had a dreadful NBA Finals, he played well enough this season to interest many teams looking for a young, athletic big man with an under rated offensive game.

The other free agent the Lakers will need to decide on is Sasha Vujacic. He’s only a restricted free agent, meaning the Lakers can match what another team offers him. The sense is that the Lakers would like to keep both players. They both have great attitudes, basketball IQs and upside. But how much will they be willing to pay to do so?

Perkins, Allen expected to play today

Celtics center Kendrick Perkins participated in the team’s shoot-around this morning and said he will try to play today, according to the Boston Globe’s blog.

Guard Ray Allen, who left Staples Center Sunday to deal with a health issue with one of his children, did not attend the shootaround, but is expected to play tonight.

Celtics have arrived

Steve Dilbeck, myself and Elliott Teaford got in to Boston around midnight local time and happened to bump into the Celtics Glen “Big Baby” Davis at baggage claim, so we can confirm that the Celtics, who were delayed several hours with mechanical problems on their plane, have indeed arrived in Boston.

Before you ask: Glen Davis was not getting his own bags, but seemed to be meeting a friend who was on our JetBlue flight from Long Beach.

Lakers punch back

This time the Lakers punched back.

It wasn’t the prettiest counterpunch in the world. Bernard Hopkins isn’t worried. But when the Celtics came back from yet another huge second-half deficit, the Lakers didn’t just cover up and wait for the final bell to ring, as they had in Game 4.

“We just kept playing,” Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. “This is for the NBA title, so what the score is in the first quarter or second quarter or third quarter is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the final score.”

Two times in the Lakers 103-98 victory in Game 5 Sunday night, they were able to take the Celtics’ best shot and fire back.

And while those punches didn’t exactly land cleanly, they did just enough damage to send the Lakers to a Game 6 in Boston Tuesday night, and keep their season alive another few days.

Three nights ago, that would’ve been hard to imagine. The Lakers had blown the biggest lead in NBA Finals history. They were down 3-1 in the series, with no room for error left. Emotionally, quite understandably, they were a wreck.

Two days of mourning, dissecting the loss, and regrouping could only do so much to heal their fragile confidence.

The prospect of sparing their home court from the spray of Boston’s championship champagne was more than enough motivation.

“I know I didn’t want to see the Celtics celebrating in my home floor with champagne and all that crap,” Lakers center Pau Gasol said. “As painful as it was, I think it definitely helped to build our confidence back up.”

As they had in Game 4, the Lakers came out swinging right away Sunday night, building a 17-point lead by the end of the first quarter to put the Celtics on their heels again.

This time, Boston answered much quicker, going on a 15-0 run over a five-minute span in the second quarter. By halftime, the lead was down to 55-52.

As flashbacks go, there was no subtlety to this one. For the second time in as many games, the Lakers had squandered a double-digit early lead.

At halftime, Lakers coach Phil Jackson made a joke of the situation.

“I just said, `Well, thank God we don’t have a lead,”’ Jackson joked. “It’s important we don’t have something like that because we just don’t know what to do with it.”

The levity seemed to help. Instead of freezing up with a case of dj vu, the Lakers answered, building the lead back to 79-70 by the end of the third quarter behind eight, tough points from Pau Gasol.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Lakers stretched the lead out to 88-74, on a jumper by Luke Walton.

Once again, Boston came roaring back. First Sam Cassell threw Sasha Vujacic to the ground, then he faked Jordan Farmar up into the air, and jumped into him -Brent Barry, are you listening? – banked in a wild shot and drew a foul.

All of a sudden, it was 88-79. Then, another nightmare from Game 4 resurfaced as James Posey hit a 3-pointer from nearly the exact same spot he broke the hearts of Lakers fans across the country on Thursday night to make it 90-86.

After free throws by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on the next two possessions, it was 90-90.

“We expected them to go on a run,” Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. “We expect a fight from those guys. I mean, they’re tough. They’re a tough-minded team.”

Four minutes remained, entirely too long to cover up and run out the clock.

And that hadn’t exactly worked the last time either. So the Lakers did what any desperate fighter would: They flurried.

Lamar Odom took the ball to the basket and got fouled, then Kobe Bryant poked the ball away from Pierce near midcourt. Odom was in the perfect spot to scoop it up, while Bryant bolted down court.

Odom’s pass was perfect, in stride, on target. Bryant had broken loose from the Celtics hold and finally gotten free for an easy fast break dunk.

“ We kept playing tonight, and we kept playing in Game 3,” Fisher said. “People will say they were ugly games to get, but so far these are the only two games we’ve won. And we’ll take what we can get.”