A shrug and a grin.
It doesn’t make much sense considering the state of Laker affairs.
The lineup is depleted by injury. The coach has a heart condition. A run of three consecutive NBA titles could end tonight in a do-or-die playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center.
Through it all, Kobe Bryant has maintained the same casual expression because, he says, the defending champions still have one thing on their side.
Four times in the last four seasons, they have faced elimination games in the postseason. Four times, they have prevailed.
“We’re a tough team to put out,” Bryant said in the aftermath of Tuesday’s loss to the Spurs. “It has something to do with luck, something to do with our grit, our fight.”
Like a heavyweight champion behind on the cards, the Lakers trail three games to two in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals and need consecutive victories to advance.
Their enduring confidence -- that half-smile on Bryant’s face -- is testament to memories from the last few seasons, the qualities that have made this team so tough to finish off.
Start with the obvious.
The Lakers possess two of the league’s most dominant players -- Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal -- each of whom has proved his mettle.
The classic example comes from last season, a must-win Game 6 against the Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference finals. Late the night before, Bryant telephoned O’Neal at home with a not-so-subtle hint.
“Big Fella,” he said, “need you tomorrow.”
O’Neal responded with 41 points and tenacious defense to lead the team to a 106-102 victory at Staples Center. Sacramento Coach Rick Adelman mused: “They did what they had to do.”
Some have suggested that, after so much success, O’Neal and Bryant require some adversity to get the adrenaline pumping.
With the team down two games to one in the first round against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bryant ignored a tender right shoulder to score 32 points as the Lakers overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to win, 102-97. O’Neal had 34 points and 23 rebounds.
“One of the things that was good tonight was the look in the Big Fella’s eyes,” guard Brian Shaw said. “Nothing but good things happen when we let the big guy get as many touches as he did.”
The Robert Horry shot that rattled off the rim in San Antonio on Tuesday only reinforced the notion that the Lakers expect to make clutch baskets.
Horry provided the exemplar last season in Game 4 of the Sacramento series, when he gathered a loose ball and launched a 25-footer with six-tenths of a second remaining.
“That’s lucky shot,” Sacramento center Vlade Divac sneered after the Lakers’ 100-99 victory.
Laker Coach Phil Jackson saw something more meaningful in the arc of Horry’s jumper, what he called “a steel kind of will,” as if those three points symbolized a team’s resilience.
There have been other examples.
In Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals, the Portland Trail Blazers built a 16-point lead and appeared on the way to victory.
As the third quarter ended, Shaw lofted a desperation three-pointer. Struggling for most of the playoffs, he was an unlikely candidate for heroics.
But his long shot banked off the glass and through the hoop.
“It was not intended to go off the backboard,” he later acknowledged. “Somebody was up there guiding it for me.”
The Lakers came back for a stunning 89-84 victory.
“It was a big momentum play,” Portland Coach Mike Dunleavy said. “It got them to where they were in striking range.”
Shaw provided a similar boost Sunday in Game 4 against San Antonio. His 33-foot shot -- again, at the buzzer and off the glass -- sparked a 99-95 comeback victory.
This one is for conspiracy theorists who believe the league favors marquee players and major-market teams. Exhibit A is Game 6 last year against Sacramento, when O’Neal’s points weren’t all that sunk the Kings.
Divac spent most of the second half in foul trouble before leaving the game on a questionable call with 2:56 remaining. Teammate Scot Pollard had already fouled out.
“Why don’t they just let us know in advance?” a frustrated Divac asked afterward.
The Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter, two more than Sacramento had the entire game.
“Obviously they got the game called the way they wanted to get it called,” said Adelman, who called it “a shame.”
The Lakers could argue that only a few nights earlier, O’Neal fouled out and the Kings enjoyed a significant free-throw advantage in Game 5.
Still, claims of preferential treatment resurfaced as recently as Game 4 of the current series against San Antonio, when David Robinson fouled out in 14 minutes.
“I was handcuffed,” he said. “I didn’t get much of a chance to play.”
Attitude and Experience
There are two ways to look at the near losses over the last four seasons: Either the Lakers have sorely tempted fate, or they have grown stronger from their trials.
Confidence took hold in that Game 7 victory over Portland three years ago, when the team -- waiting for O’Neal and Bryant to make good on their potential -- found a missing ingredient.
As Rick Fox said, “We just got gritty with it.”
Against the Kings last season, the Lakers not only won Game 6 but took the deciding seventh game in overtime.
Now, the difference between a proven champion and a younger San Antonio team has been evident, even as the healthier, deeper Spurs have moved within a game of ending the Laker dynasty.
In Game 4, as O’Neal and Bryant made clutch free throws, San Antonio disintegrated.
Tim Duncan threw the ball away, Tony Parker had an inbounds pass intercepted by Bryant and Danny Ferry turned the ball over to O’Neal.
The same thing almost happened Tuesday, the Spurs blowing all but two points of a 25-point lead, then holding their breath on Horry’s final miss.
After the 96-94 victory, San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich noted the Lakers’ knack for coming on strong at the end, saying “it gets into your head a little bit.”
His players agreed. Robinson warned that the series is not over “by any stretch.” He and his teammates would rather not chance a seventh game.
“We’ve got to close it out in L.A.,” Duncan said.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are counting on history to pull them through.
“You knock us down,” Bryant said earlier this week. “We get right back up.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
On the Brink
How the Lakers have fared in elimination games under Phil Jackson:
First round (Series tied, 2-2)
May 5, 2000 at Staples Center -- Lakers 113, Sacramento 86. Shaq scores 32 points and grabs 18 rebounds as Lakers romp to victory.
Conference finals (Series tied, 3-3)
June 4, 2000 at Staples Center -- Lakers 89, Portland 84. In one of the greatest comebacks in Laker history, L.A. rallies from 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to earn first trip to NBA Finals since 1991.
Conference finals (Trailing, 3-2)
May 31, 2002 at Staples Center -- Lakers 106, Sacramento 102. Shaq scores 41 points and grabs 17 rebounds and makes 13 of 17 free-throw attempts.
Conference finals (Series tied, 3-3)
June 2, 2002 at Sacramento -- Lakers 112, Sacramento 106. It takes overtime, but Shaq’s 35 points and Kobe’s 30 points lead Lakers to NBA Finals for the third year in a row.