Lakers don’t want to settle for door prize this time

For nearly a year, its memories have stuck to the Lakers’ psyche like those of an awkward, embarrassing first date.

At last, they are going on a second one.

After absorbing a season of furious knocking, the door of the NBA Finals reopened again Friday to pleading guys in purple shorts, offering a chance at redemption and revival.

Same gleaming prize.


Much different suitor.

After chillingly dismantling the Denver Nuggets in front of a hostile Pepsi Center crowd -- a 119-92 victory to win the NBA Western Conference championship in six games -- these Lakers have finally grown to a stage where they are not last year’s Lakers.

“It’s different,” Kobe Bryant said afterward, sharply. “It’s different.”

It was an explanation that sounded like a warning. It was a postgame celebration that looked like a chore.

After silencing and scattering the roaring Denver crowd, the Lakers walked calmly off the court as if their journey was only beginning.

They clapped but only politely. They smiled but only barely.

“You have to understand, what happened last year has stuck to everybody in here,” Andrew Bynum said. “Maybe it puts more pressure on us, I don’t know, but getting there is not enough, we have to close it.”

Besides the fact that two Lakers starters, Bynum and Trevor Ariza, were either missing or nonfactors in last year’s loss to the Boston Celtics, there are other huge differences.

Those Lakers strolled into the Finals.

These Lakers, finding their souls after embarrassing scares against Houston and Denver, are stalking there.

Those Lakers were all gussied up for the Finals.

These Lakers, after spending the last month throwing fists at heavyweights, are decked in dungarees and scowls.

Those Lakers never had a chance in the Finals, consistently battered by the Celtics, blowing a 24-point lead to lose one game, collapsing under a 39-point beating in the finale.

These Lakers not only should win the Finals but could do so quickly, having just survived a West obstacle course that has given them the sort of confidence they wear like armor.

“Everybody thinks we’re a soft team, but we’ve just played against really physical teams, against all kinds of teams,” Ariza said. “We’re ready for anything.”

Are you ready for a five-game Lakers victory? That is the prediction here, it doesn’t matter what team they play.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are one great player, the Orlando Magic is a collection of gimmick players, the Lakers have enough depth and strength to overwhelm either one.

Now, too, they have an understanding.

It showed itself midway through the second quarter Friday, when J.R. Smith hit a jumper that gave the Nuggets a 31-30 lead. The crowd was dancing, the Nuggets’ mountain lion mascot Rocky was sinking a midcourt shot from behind his head, the Lakers could have been steamrollered and everybody would have just headed back to Los Angeles for Game 7 with a shrug.

Except they weren’t.

“Tonight we finally got off, and took off,” Pau Gasol said.

Took off with six different Lakers scoring points in an ensuing 23-9 run to end the first half.

Took off with a final three-pointer by Bryant after two Lakers offensive rebounds.

“They couldn’t have played any better,” marveled the Nuggets’ Carmelo Anthony.

This spring, the Lakers have never passed the ball better than they did Friday night, they’ve never shot it more efficiently, they’ve never rebounded more effectively, and they’ve never made all 24 of their free throws.

Said Coach Phil Jackson: “We saved our best game for last here.”

Said Nuggets Coach George Karl: “I saw little cracks in the Lakers and somehow we’ve cemented those cracks back up and I think they’re the best team right now in the NBA.”

They now have a week to ponder that statement and all of its ramifications.

Yes, they are the best team. Yes, to lose now would be devastating.

It’s the franchise’s 30th trip to the Finals, and the story lines seem just as old.

Bryant is once again trying to lead a team to a title without Shaquille O’Neal, which would equal O’Neal and put him two titles short of Michael Jordan.

Jackson is once again trying to become the top championship coach in NBA history, passing Boston’s Red Auerbach with his 10th title.

Gasol and Lamar Odom are trying to prove they are tough enough to wear a ring.

Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton and Jordan Farmar are trying to prove they are resilient enough to supply the stuff that will shine that ring.

The only new subplots involve the emergence of Ariza, who had a breakout series against the Nuggets, and the future of Bynum, who still really hasn’t shown up.

The main story, however, remains one shared by everyone employed by what continues to be one of the most successful franchises in all of sports.

It is the story about a failure.

It is the story about fixing that failure, about overcoming an embarrassment, about turning a tarnished summer into a giant gold ball.

“We just wanted another chance,” Lamar Odom said quietly, simply, resoundingly.