PHOENIX – Forget about Denver. Or Houston. Or Oklahoma City. Last year, last month, whatever. It's all in the past, Kobe Bryant(notes) snarled. None of it matters now. And don't dare mention the Boston Celtics. They're a subject for a more pleasant time.
If the Los Angeles Lakers got caught looking too far ahead, they'd now be wise not to peer too deep into their past. This is about living in the moment. This is about how the Lakers lost something between Hollywood and here, and how these Western Conference finals have suddenly turned stone serious.
Eyes aflame, jaw locked, Kobe stared into the cameras late Tuesday and narrowed his gaze to a Game 5 some 44 hours away in Los Angeles.
"We have to play with a sense of urgency," he said, "and understand this team can beat us."
Kobe's words were terse and clipped, and his eyes simmered behind them. His message was unmistakably clear: No longer should the Lakers expect a smooth road to the NBA Finals. The past few weeks had swelled the Lakers' confidence. No more. They arrived here up 2-0 and jetted home with the series reduced to a best-of-three. The Phoenix Suns have their attention.
No one knows that better than Bryant. Four years ago, he and the Lakers carried a 3-1 first-round lead into Game 5 against the Suns. They lost and went on to drop the series. The Suns ran over the Lakers again the following year, spurring Bryant to issue an edict to the franchise: Get me help or trade me.
At the time, the two losses to Phoenix stained Bryant's résumé. He won three championships with Shaquille O'Neal(notes), but Shaq had been traded. Everyone wanted to know: Can Kobe lead his own team to a title?
Bryant won't admit he came into this series seeking payback, but he's clearly able to turn those memories into fuel – and that's what made Tuesday all the harder to stomach. The Suns ran free and loose once again, burying 3-pointer after 3-pointer, using their self-described "girly" zone defense to lull the Lakers into too many jump shots of their own. Even more embarrassing: It was the Suns' reserves who overwhelmed the Lakers' stars in the fourth quarter.
Bryant might as well have had Smush Parker(notes) playing alongside him. He totaled 38 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds – following his 36-point near-triple-double in the Game 3 loss – but didn't get much assistance from his supporting cast.
The Suns' gimmicky zone continued to cause some trouble. The Lakers shot well enough, but the Suns choked off the passing lanes and kept them from getting the ball inside to their big men. In the two losses, the Lakers have attempted 60 3-pointers to 33 free throws, a staggering differential that points to the difficulty the Lakers have had getting the ball to the rim – or getting calls.
More than anything, the Suns' zone has scrambled the Lakers' priorities. The Lakers have spent the past couple days looking at ways to attack the Suns' defense while neglecting their own. When the Lakers needed a stop in the fourth quarter, they couldn't deliver.
"We lost the game," Bryant said, "because our defense sucked.
"Our focus was on the other side of the floor, which doesn't win championships. So we need to get back to ground zero when it comes to that."
The Lakers can say they've been in this position before. Within the past two seasons, they reached three Game 5s with the series tied 2-2. They won each – beating Houston, Denver and Oklahoma City – and have won eight straight Game 5s overall dating to the 2007 loss to the Suns.
"Experience," Odom said, "is the best teacher of all."
These Lakers don't worry about much. They will play Game 5 at home and, if necessary, also Game 7. The officiating could slide the other way with the change of locale. So could Channing Frye's(notes) shooting. History is on the Lakers' side.
Bryant, however, didn't want to hear about the past, and that's why he started to set the tone for Game 5 before the Lakers even reached the loading dock. He had spent part of the game barking at teammates, and now his anger was continuing to rise as he sat at the dais. Each question about the Suns' zone was swatted away with a criticism of his own team's defense. Asked how he was feeling, Bryant deadpanned: "Jovial."
Bryant marched off and made the long walk down a pair of hallways to the team's bus. He was surrounded by security. He wasn't smiling. This was the look of a man who had seen enough. The Lakers were losing their grip on the series, and Kobe needed to take charge.
Forget the past. Don't worry about the Finals. All that matters is now. The Lakers aren't cruising through the playoffs anymore. They've found a fight.