Lakers work on wait training

Times Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant better get out his credit card.

The Lakers are again in a watch-and-wait holding pattern, their reward for winning another playoff series before their next opponent is decided.

They got together at a Melrose Avenue Italian eatery more than two weeks ago to watch the last game between Houston and Utah, with Bryant picking up the tab.

They'll probably reconvene Monday night to watch Game 7 between New Orleans and San Antonio. The bill probably will be slid in front of Bryant.

"I guess you can't break tradition now," forward Luke Walton said without a trace of sorrow.

The Lakers closed out Utah with a Game 6 victory Friday, which meant a day off Saturday. They'll report again to practice today, even though they won't know whom they'll play Wednesday at Staples Center in the opener of the Western Conference finals.

They went 2-2 against the Spurs and Hornets this season, including home victories against each of them in the final week of the regular season.

They beat the Spurs on April 13, 106-85, busting open a 53-53 halftime tie with an improbable 45-19 run that lasted until the game's final minutes.

Two days before that, the Lakers led the Hornets by 30 and had to hold off a furious rally in a 107-104 victory.

The Spurs and Hornets are locked in a home-court-dominated West semifinal, but whom do the Lakers want to emerge?

They wouldn't state their preferences publicly, but the Spurs happen to be the defending champions, winners of four of the last nine NBA titles, and the Hornets, well, they're a fun team to watch. (Not to mention that the Hornets, seeded second in the West behind the Lakers, have some injuries in their frontcourt, All-Star forward David West battling a back injury and center Tyson Chandler playing with a bruised foot.)

Of course, the question came up right away, mere minutes after the Lakers' 108-105 victory over the Jazz.

"Isn't that life? You can't even untie your shoes and everybody's like, 'What's next?' " guard Derek Fisher said with a smile. "Obviously, the Spurs are the defending champs and until they're done, everything goes through them. They still hold the crown. The Hornets have obviously shown they're not here by accident. I know a lot of people are waiting for the other shoe to drop. . . . They're a serious basketball team."

Said Walton: "You can't say you want to play one or the other. The Spurs are the champs. New Orleans has proven all year they are an unbelievable team. You've just got to sit there and let each other battle it out and get ready to play whoever it is."

Until then, the Lakers can take great comfort in their victory in Utah. The Jazz had been 41-5 at home until the Lakers hung Utah with a loss in front of an ear-piercing crowd. The Lakers also kicked a historic trend of visiting teams going 1-21 in the conference semifinals this season.

Bryant showed few effects of the back spasms that had been bothering him for the better part of a week. He had 34 points, 12 in the fourth quarter as the Jazz pounded away at a onetime 19-point lead but never caught the Lakers.

Bryant even brought up his alter ego afterward, saying he "went to the Black Mamba" when asked if he was "in the zone" in the final few minutes.

"It's my role to kind of be patient and pick my spots, but then when that moment comes, it's my responsibility to this ballclub to make the right plays," he said. "I was able to come through for us."

It didn't come without tension, and near despair for the Lakers, as the Jazz made five three-pointers in the final 2:33. The victory wasn't secured until Mehmet Okur missed a three-point attempt with 4.8 seconds left and Deron Williams missed a three-point attempt with 0.9 seconds left.

"That last play was a little nerve-racking," Walton said. "It was kind of a freeway with people running all over the place. You didn't really know how it was going to end up. I didn't even hear the buzzer, that's how loud the crowd was. All of a sudden, I just looked up and saw a red light on and we knew we won."

Indeed, the Lakers are back in the West finals for the first time since 2004, when they beat Minnesota in six games to reach the NBA Finals.

"It's been a great journey so far," Bryant said. "We want to keep it rolling."

Times staff writer Jonathan Abrams contributed to this report.


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