Lakers still feeling burned by Suns
It might have been the least memorable Lakers playoff series in decades, a meek five-game loss to the Phoenix Suns, but the off-season it spawned was anything but forgettable.
Kobe Bryant stewed and steamed after the Lakers were eliminated in the first round in 2007, sitting at a podium within a few minutes of their ouster and putting owner Jerry Buss and the front office on notice. “Do something, and do it now,” he decreed. “Three years,” he said, and the Lakers were still “at ground zero.”
Indeed, it was the third season after the Lakers dealt Shaquille O'Neal, and Bryant had endured all the mediocrity he could handle. He demanded to be traded a few weeks later, a request that led to an unsettling off-season as the franchise lurched and rolled under the weight of its angry superstar.
Only when Pau Gasol arrived with a midseason trade the following season did Bryant settle down, the Lakers now on their way to a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals if they could get past their old friends, the Suns.
Not that Bryant now seems in the mood to revisit old times. “Not too many people were here when that happened,” he said.
Only five Lakers remain from their inglorious 2007 ejection and also a wildly entertaining first-round series in 2006 that went seven games but ended with the same result — a loss to the Suns.
Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton experienced both playoff defeats, Bynum so young at the time that he recently referred to the quiet 2007 exit as his “sophomore year.”
School was definitely in session that season.
The Lakers’ 26-13 start blew past dim pre-season prognostications, but awkward, prickly events began to appear as if the basketball deities had given the Lakers too much too quickly.
Vladimir Radmanovic lied to Lakers officials about the circumstances of a shoulder injury, confessing a few days later he had been injured while snowboarding during the All-Star break. Kwame Brown became a national punch line after police said he threw a cake at a bystander outside a Hermosa Beach nightclub. Brian Cook indignantly tossed his warm-up sweats in Coach Phil Jackson’s lap while checking into a game.
Somehow, it wasn’t surprising that Jackson suffered the first seven-game losing streak of his NBA coaching career.
His election to the Basketball Hall of Fame that April was tempered when point guard Smush Parker publicly criticized Jackson’s substituting strategy by saying he “gave up trying to read that man a long time ago.”
The Lakers were divided by the end of the 2007 season, somehow winning Game 3 at home against Phoenix before bowing out with two more losses.
“That one was tough,” Walton said. “That was when Smush had been starting all year and he started acting up and they ended up benching him a couple days before the playoffs started. I was struggling that whole time with my ankle, couldn’t get that thing healthy.”
Then he paused.
“To be honest, I don’t remember that series nearly as well as the one where we were up, 3-1,” he said.
Oh, that one.
The Lakers energized their fans in 2006 by winning a remarkable Game 4 against heavily favored Phoenix, but they ultimately became only the eighth team to lose a series after taking a 3-1 lead, getting trounced in Game 7, 121-90.
“That series still hurts every time I think about it or talk about it,” Walton said, dejectedly. “We had done a great job of game planning and preparing and working against their fastbreak and playing at a high level to get that 3-1 lead.
“That Game 4 at home when I tied up Steve Nash at half court and Kobe hit a fadeaway to win it, that game was incredible, the amount of energy and effort.
“Game 6, we had them, going back and forth, a great game, and we were one offensive rebound away from moving on, but they got it and hit a three. We were a relatively new and young team, but we weren’t ready for that Game 7.”
Bynum played only two minutes that entire series, but the losses still stuck with him.
“That first year was ridiculous,” he said. “We were up 3-1 and lost three in a row. Everybody remembers that. It’s definitely payback time.”
Said Walton: “There’s a little talk around the locker room from the guys that were on that team. Everyone that was on our team back then definitely remembers that feeling still down in their gut.”
Time has passed. The Lakers were the seventh-seeded team in the Western Conference both times they lost to the Suns, but they’re top-seeded this time.
Now they’re the favored ones.
“We definitely feel it’s our series to win or lose,” Walton said. “Obviously, they’re playing as well as any team in the league. To sweep San Antonio is near impossible, and they did it, so they’re coming in with a ton of confidence. It’s going to be a fun, energetic series — good for the NBA, good for the fans — but we feel very confident we can win that series.”
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