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Lakers still growing, and it can be painful

ON THE NBA

Countdown to a title, Lakers style:

16, 15, 14 -- Oops -- 13, 12 -- Say what? -- 11, 10 -- Yawn, bummer -- 9 -- Biff! Sock! -- 8, 7 -- Et tu, Nuggets? -- 6 -- Who turned out the lights?

Yes, things have changed since last spring . . . or last month . . . ending the notion of the Lakers as The Next Big Thing and Absolute Rulers of the West.

Remember their 17-2 start when talk show hosts and other excitable people said they’d win 70?

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Remember when they won the West by 11 games and everyone thought their only test in the conference playoff draw would be Portland in the second round?

Now Lakers fans want to know one thing:

What in the name of the Jell-O jiggling inside the refrigerator happened to our team?

The refrigerator door isn’t just open, the Nuggets -- you remember, the former rabble the Lakers swept in last spring’s first round -- are helping themselves to the Jell-O.

OK, here’s the answer:

The Lakers not only had a big opinion of themselves, which we figured out a while back, they’re painfully young.

Mercifully, the arrogance is gone but the growing-up process continues.

“It’s a different kind of group,” says Derek Fisher, who played on the Lakers’ champions in 2000, 2001 and 2002 with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

“A lot of stock has been placed in Andrew [Bynum] and his potential at 21 years old -- where, compared to our teams in the past, the only guy near his early 20s who was being asked to do anything of major importance to us was Kobe.

“Now we’re asking that of Trevor [Ariza] and Jordan [Farmar] and Andrew and Shannon [Brown], who’s been here for two months, guy after guy, who are still trying to figure out where they fit in in this league, not to mention what their specific role is on this team.

“By the time we got to this level, Kobe and I were four-year guys, Shaq had been to the Finals and lost, and then we had Rick [Fox], and Rob [Horry] and Harp [Ron Harper] and this coaching staff. I mean, you had thousands of NBA games’ experience, and players who had been through everything.”

The current complex of problems first surfaced in last spring’s Finals, with the Lakers coming in favored after blitzing through the West draw 12-3, and going out feet first.

Their ancient foe, the Celtics, ran them over, exposed them as marshmallow-soft and sent them home with a Game 6 humiliation to remember them by, but it didn’t set off alarm bells among the Lakers.

The final piece of the puzzle was already in hand: Bynum, who had missed the postseason but would be back to settle accounts in what looked like a New Lakers Age.

Of course, after coming back, Bynum then got hurt again, and is still working on this comeback.

With Bynum up and running, as opposed to loping and playing 20 minutes, the Lakers can be something they aren’t now . . . special . . . a skilled, towering team that can play over anyone’s heads, including the Nuggets, who for all their athleticism and, uh, enthusiasm, are really 6-10, 6-8, 6-6 across the front line.

Whether Bynum’s warmup in Game 4 means anything remains to be seen, but he scored 14 points and impressed Phil Jackson with his determination, for a change.

In Chicago, Jackson used to say, “You win with men,” and he won with enough men to know.

There have been only four starters as young as 23 on the last 20 NBA champions: Bryant, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Robert Horry.

The Lakers now start two, Ariza, 23, and Bynum, 21.

Experience meaning what it does, Bryant and Fisher both called the Lakers’ Game 3 win in Denver one of the biggest road games in their career.

“I think it does rank up there,” Fisher says, “because this team has actually been compared in potential with some of our championship teams, trying to kind of step into the championship role of the Lakers of old.

“But other than the Finals last year, we didn’t really have any of those moments when we had a chance to take that big step and have to fight back and try to win an elimination game on the road.

“It wasn’t really until we got to Boston in Game 6, that was really our first time in that position.”

Obviously it may take several debacles, er, opportunities, like that one and Games 4 and 6 in Houston.

So it’s not impossible that that New Lakers Age could still be at hand, although it’s definitely off to a rocky start.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com


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