Heisler: Left for dead at midseason, Lakers now pick for title

Remember the Heat routing the Lakers in Los Angeles on Christmas?

Remember Kobe Bryant promising to kick rear ends at practice, announcing: "You don't just have two rings and say we're satisfied with what we've got. … I'm not rolling with that."

Remember when the Spurs ran over them three days later in San Antonio?

Remember the Celtics coming into the Staples Center on Jan. 30 and rocking the Lakers' world too, by which time half the local talk-show hosts were on medication?

Remember Jerry West noting how old and slow the Lakers looked?

Now it's as if nothing has changed ... almost.

The Lakers are back as everyone's favorite in the West and a narrow pick (3-2) over the Bulls (5-2) to win it all.

(Miami was actually the preseason fave — no, really — in the days when ESPN launched a Heat website with updates on winning 72 and LeBron James averaging a triple-double. They will miss by at least 14 wins, James is at 27-8-7 and ESPN dropped both updates by December.)

The Lakers started the season as twice-defending champions and three-time defending West champions without ever having been all they could be with a healthy Andrew Bynum at the end. If they ever got there, I wrote then, no one else would be close.

Things have changed.

With 60 wins, the Spurs are the best West team to challenge the Lakers since they started this run in 2008.

The East is better than it has been since Michael Jordan's heyday in Chicago.

At the top of their game, the Lakers may still be the best, and in any case, it will be close.

However it ends, it's late in the game for them with Phil Jackson on his way out, only two rotation players under 30 and a big free-agent crossroads in 2012.

Under the circumstances, what so many think was inevitable was actually remarkable.

With Bynum looking heavy and slow and his elders looking elderly at midseason, it appeared as if the Lakers' time might have come and gone.

They began rolling back the years after the All-Star break, with Bynum healthy and a few more developments.

If everything the Lakers do still starts and ends with Bryant, he's no longer an all-purpose savior. After playing hurt last season, the incomparable finisher has lost some bounce and leaves layups on the rim here and there.

His declining free-throw attempts (7.1 the last three seasons, down from a career high of 10.2) are a function of better teammates, fewer minutes (34, down from last season's 39) and his transformation from a slasher who might pull up to a midrange jump shooter who might take it all the way.

If his shooting percentage (47-46-45) and scoring have dropped (27-27-25), it's all but imperceptible. He's still considered the game's best closer.

If the Lakers no longer can expect Bryant to tow them into position when they don't feel like playing and win games at the end, they now rely on … defense?

Under Jackson, the Lakers traditionally played IIAY? defense — "Is It April Yet?" Some years it was IIMY? — "Is It May Yet?" This season they switched to a San Antonio-style don't-double, don't-rotate scheme, installed by assistant coach/former Spur Chuck Person.

"I didn't see this, man," Nuggets coach George Karl said last week, grieving over the Lakers' revival. "The thing I see is the defensive commitment is maybe better than it's ever been. … I mean, they could always tune it up, but it's become kind of their motto."

Well, for a while. The Lakers are 0-4 since.

The other half of local talk-show hosts are now on medication too.

Around Los Angeles, we call it "playoff form."


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