Lakers show that they've learned their lesson (maybe)

What could go wrong now?

Oh, yeah, what has gone wrong all those other times.

It's not the big dog in the fight but the fight in the big dog, the Lakers learned in Game 1 of this series against the undermanned New Orleans Hornets … and in Games 1, 2, 4 and 6 of the 2008 Finals against underdog Boston … and in Game 4 of the 2009 second-round series against Houston without Yao Ming … and in Games 2, 4 and 5 of the 2010 Finals as the favorite once more against Boston.

So they need a refresher course from time to time.

Awakening to a new peril after a single reminder — so far — the Lakers sprang into action Tuesday night, one game behind the Hornets who stole Game 1, beating New Orleans, 87-78.

Talk about heart!

Well, at least the Lakers found out they still have one.

It was a real team victory — and it had to be with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol scoring 19 points … combined, missing 15 of 20 shots. Gasol was two for 10, making him four for 19 for the series, so at least they have lots of room for improvement.

Not that there was panic in the streets of Lakerdom, but even the most dogged believers were shaken.

"This is the playoffs!" railed team broadcaster Mychal Thompson, a member of the Showtime teams in the 1980s, when Coach Pat Riley would have skewered anyone who played like that alive.

"I don't understand how you can come out flat to start the playoffs. That is beyond my NBA DNA understanding.

"We would have had a five-hour practice the next day. We wouldn't have wanted to get up to go to practice. Everybody would have called in sick."

This is obviously a new age and, amazingly, no less glorious with five titles to the Showtime teams' five.

In Current Lakers style, the tension was so thick before the game … somewhere, but not here.

Coach Phil Jackson's pregame news conference was remarkable for its absence of anything, questions on the game from the press, zingers from Phil, substance of any kind.

As for trying to fire up his players, the closest Jackson came, he said, was telling his players it was fortunate Lamar Odom was receiving his sixth-man-of-the-year award before the game "because it might be the last game he played in front of his home crowd."

Phil meant that not only could the Lakers lose in four, but the league could also then shut down forever.

We also covered which championship ring Phil would wear — his first as a coach in Chicago in 1991 — after wearing his first as a Knicks player from New York in 1970 in the Game 1 loss to New Orleans.

"Now to serious matters," he said, suggesting the gravity of the situation.

"Any thought on Frank McCourt today and what happened to the Dodgers?" The Times' T.J. Simers said.

So if the Lakers came out like caged tigers, it would have had nothing to do with rah-rah speeches.

Actually, they came out more like caged squirrels.

With fumbling anxiety replacing casual effort, the Hornets zipped to a 20-11 lead with backup center Aaron Gray, someone who wasn't high on local fans' radar before this week, hitting a short jumper as boos began to rain down.

After that, it settled into a rock 'em, sock 'em defensive battle.

The Lakers surged into the lead and won anyway.

After the third quarter, with the Lakers seven points ahead, TNT's Cheryl Miller asked Jackson if Pau, at least, was being more aggressive.

"No," Phil said.

Jackson was asked afterward if the physical test was good for the Lakers.

"Who knows?" Phil said.

Reality check: Did this team really win five titles?

I just looked it up. They did.

The series moves to New Orleans for Game 3 on Friday, with the Lakers undoubtedly serene in their confidence that they will recapture home-court advantage, no matter how many polite things they say.

Of course, too much serenity will get you every time, the Lakers are still learning.

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