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Needing a Leg to Stand on

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There is one admirable quality the Lakers exhibited this season, a quality they’ll need now more than ever.

Amid the arrogance, pettiness, selfishness and occasional ambivalence, the Lakers got to where they are, all even in the NBA Finals, because of their resilience.

They showed it in the face of a sea of cameras and microphones when their training camp turned into Court TV. They showed it after injuries stripped their lineup from dream team to wishful thinking. And they showed it when fractions of a second remained on the game clock.

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“I think it’s just the year we’ve had,” Karl Malone said. “Everything that we went through this year, we’ve always believed in ourselves.

“We give other teams respect, but we also feel like we’ve got an opportunity to win every ballgame. That’s just the character of this team.”

And now it looks as if they’ll have to go through the last leg of the journey with little or no help from the backbone of the team, the most resilient Laker of all, Malone.

The Lakers say he’s questionable for Game 3 after he limped his way through 39 minutes of the Lakers’ victory in Game 2 with a sprained knee ligament. Even as he hobbled around the court Tuesday night he almost managed to scrape together a double-double, with nine points and nine rebounds. He refused to let the circumstances defeat him.

That’s really the way the Lakers have been all season. They weren’t bound by mathematics, physics and logic. They always believed in their chances.

They were in second place in the Pacific Division and fourth place in the Western Conference on the final night of the regular season. But they vaulted into first place in the division and the automatic No. 2 conference playoff seeding that came with it thanks to the combination of a Sacramento loss at Golden State and amazing three-pointers by Bryant with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation and at the buzzer in the second overtime.

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Then there was Game 5 of the conference semifinals against San Antonio, the one-point deficit, the clock reading that you now can find on T-shirts and car flags all over town, the Derek Fisher shot.

The Lakers have pulled off more narrow escapes than in the whole “Indiana Jones” trilogy. They’re starting to overshadow one another. No one ever talks anymore about Shaquille O’Neal’s put-back at the end of the first playoff game, against Houston, when Bryant shot an airball and O’Neal grabbed it, dunked and gave the Lakers a 72-71 victory.

O’Neal pulled off a similar move against the Detroit Pistons in a play that will be lost in all of the Game 2 coverage. After the Lakers fell behind by six in the final minute, O’Neal rebounded a three-point try by Bryant, drew a foul on Ben Wallace and made the layup and free throw to cut the Pistons’ lead in half. (O’Neal’s presence in the paint also caused Chauncey Billups to miss a fall-away shot that left the Laker deficit at three points in the final minute.)

That set the stage for the latest addition to Bryant’s collection, that three-pointer that sailed high through the night and dropped through the southern net, the one where all the memorable Laker shots at Staples Center go in, with 2.1 seconds remaining.

Yes, they benefited from the Pistons’ stunning decision not to foul O’Neal when he caught the inbound pass.

How quickly the perspectives shift. The Pistons seemed to face insurmountable odds before the Finals. The only dissension among the forecasters was how many games it would take the Lakers to win it.

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Now it’s the Lakers who must find a way to win at least one game in Detroit with a gimpy Malone. Fisher and Devean George aren’t feeling so good themselves.

They have relied on Malone for so much energy and toughness this season. If they can’t win it with him, can they win it for him?

It would appear to be up to Bryant to take on the challenge. Normally he’s at his best in the purple uniform. But this year his playoff home scoring average is five points better than his road scoring average.

The one thing about Bryant, however, is that nothing else seems to matter when the game is on the line. He went through bad stretches in the Portland game, took ill-advised shots against Detroit, was near exhaustion in Game 5 in San Antonio, but always came through with big shots. Is there any doubt that he’ll make them?

An NBA player called me Wednesday morning to gush about Bryant’s shot in Game 2, to say he’d never seen anyone like him in the clutch. The guy was a former teammate of Michael Jordan.

There has never been any team like this Laker squad. Much of their adversity is of their own making. But their ability to overcome it is making this a memorable postseason.

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“They’re just hard-headed,” Coach Phil Jackson said. “A bunch of nincompoops, you know?”

All jokes aside, he said, “What they do have is that competitive zeal, that extra effort that showed up [Tuesday] night that they’re not going to give up, they’re going to keep playing.”

Right until the final tenths of a second.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.

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