Beginning That One Final Push

The Lakers lost to the New York Knicks on April 1. It resembled many of their other 25 losses, the Lakers playing not quite hard or together enough to win.

They would not lose again until Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Whatever happened that April Fool's Day, whatever inspired the Lakers from there, it launched 19 consecutive victories that drove them through eight regular-season games, and through Western Conference playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs, all 50-game winners.

The streak began in Utah, two nights after New York.

Sometime, somewhere, maybe, the Lakers hoped to compose themselves and start defending their championship.

They had seven games left. They had one superstar left. And they defeated the Utah Jazz.

"But, you know," Derek Fisher said, "we have an uncanny knack for taking one step forward and two back."

On to Chicago.

Back in the city where there was no question he could coach--it says so right there on the banner hanging in the rafters of the United Center--Phil Jackson arrived dragging a Laker team that sometimes played hard and sometimes didn't, but consistently confounded him. The Lakers defeated the terrible Bulls, 100-88, and remained a game behind Sacramento in the Pacific Division.

They would score at least 100 points a game for the rest of the regular season, through Boston, Minnesota, Phoenix, Minnesota again, Portland and Denver. They held their opponents below 100 in eight of their last 10 games.

In the middle of it, Brian Shaw said, "Maybe we're starting to get it together, I don't know."

Kobe Bryant returned for good on April 10.

Before Bryant braced his ankles with tape and inserts, Fisher pulled a black baseball cap out of his closet and stuck it on his head, over the gray suit and pale yellow tie.

On the crown it read, "Champions, 2000. Lakers." He hadn't worn it in almost a year, maybe.

"Until somebody has one of these," he said, "they've got to come see us."

At the end of their turbulent season, the Lakers started to feel it again, in part because Bryant's return went so well.

Back from ankle tendinitis that kept him out for nine of 10 games, Bryant scored 20 points in a 26-point victory against the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center. O'Neal scored 32 points, his eighth consecutive game of at least 31, and took 13 rebounds.

They won with tenacity that once won them a championship.

"It was a breakout game for us," Jackson said.

The focus was Bryant, who smiled again on a basketball court for the first time in weeks.

"It was fun to be back," Bryant said. "It felt like I was a kid who was sick and couldn't go out and play."

Even O'Neal noticed.

"Kobe had a good game," he said. "Everybody was involved and everybody was aggressive on defense. That's what it's going to take. I'm proud of my teammates tonight."

On the final day of the regular season, against the Denver Nuggets, O'Neal made 13 of 13 free throws. He scored 33 points, at least 31 for the 11th consecutive game. And the Lakers won their eighth in a row, clinching home-court advantage at least through the second round.

"Everything's as right as it can be right now," Bryant said.

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