Lakers need chance to take things further

It was at the end of the third quarter, and LeBron James had just escaped a chokehold from Pau Gasol when he bounced into the chest of Troy Murphy.

James stuck out his arm in a motion to shove. Murphy didn’t move. James tried it again. Murphy still didn’t move.

Officials intervened and players swarmed and here came Lakers Coach Mike Brown, running off the bench, swinging his arm into the scrum, but it wasn’t what you think.

PHOTOS: Lakers vs. Heat

High above the fray, Brown gently stuck out his hand and met Murphy’s hand in a high-five for heart.


It was that sort of afternoon. The Lakers are becoming that sort of team. A 93-83 victory over the Miami Heat at Staples Center on Sunday was the defining moment in a season for an embattled group that has been pushed around for more than two months before finally figuring out how to hold its ground.

Once hopeless, then hapless, the Lakers have actually become pretty good, answering Dwyane Wade’s cheapness and James’ greatness and the Heat hype Sunday with a power and passion that, like an Andrew Bynum block, soared from the court into the stands.

Jack Nicholson stood up and screamed at the officials. Jeanie Buss laughingly engaged LeBron James in conversation. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on the scoreboard and yellow towels were flapping in the stands and, for once this season, that pep talk on the giant flapping pregame sheet was just perfect.

“Out of the shadows, into the light,” it correctly predicted.

Yet the question remains, just how bright? With the March 15 trading deadline looming, the Lakers’ Earth opened Sunday to a reveal a team whose 2 1/2-hour answer revealed another, much longer question.

Does it now appear they can chase a championship with what they have? Can they now steamroller the trade deadline the way Metta World Peace just flattened about half of South Beach? Can they be deep enough, good enough, for long enough?

Afterward I asked this of Kobe Bryant, who managed to answer despite enduring a pounding neck ache from the remnants of the whiplash he suffered along with a concussion and broken nose at the recent All-Star game.

The Masked Mamba scored more than 30 points for his third consecutive game while wearing that hideous face protector — he knocked down 33 — but he’s paying a price in discomfort and exhaustion. Upon leaving the arena Sunday afternoon, he was headed for another night of sitting in a dark, quiet room so, he says, “My brain can rest.”

So does he think this team needs to pick up a piece by March 15?

“Don’t know, don’t care; we just have to keep trucking along,” Bryant said. “That’s one of the conversations we had when [ Derek] Fisher addressed the team a couple of weeks ago; we just have to focus on what we do, being the best that we can with the group that we have.”

So, as constituted, is this team good enough to win a championship?

“We believe so,” Bryant said, but then quickly added, “Management has to do their job and it’s out of our control. We have to focus on what we have.”

In other words, yeah, they still need some help. If he didn’t exactly say it, he surely meant it, and I absolutely agree with it.

The best thing about Sunday is that, if everyone remains sold on the system, the Lakers showed they can survive a couple of rounds of the playoffs. The worst thing about Sunday is that it might have fooled management into thinking they don’t need help to go further.

The Lakers were good enough to dominate the NBA’s most dominant team, holding the league’s second-highest-scoring offense to 20 points below its average. But the Heat was playing without Chris Bosh, who was off mourning his late grandmother, and its remaining big guys were two for 16.

The Lakers were good enough to slow down the Heat with physical team defense and deliberate offense, and now one might think this is a matchup that could favor the Lakers in June. But their postseason problem is not going to be the Heat, it’s going to be getting to the Heat by going through athletic Oklahoma City, which recently pounded the Lakers by 15 in a game that didn’t feel that close.

So though this recent success will surely further dissuade the Buss family from making a big move, it should at least use that Lamar Odom trade exception and bring in an athletic ballhandler with, you know, a little Thunder.

“This was a good, physical, hard-fought win,” said a beaming Mike Brown, still sweating on a late Sunday afternoon.

Certainly, it’s a start.