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Lakers’ stay-in-the-moment approach has led them to brink of NBA title

Lakers coach Frank Vogel calls for a timeout during Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

After Frank Vogel had been introduced as the Lakers coach, it took 84 seconds before he mentioned the single biggest tentpole of his coaching philosophy.

“The focus for our group has got to be to remain in the moment,” Vogel said.

It was May 20, 2019, when everything was different.

The Lakers were in disarray. Hours earlier, Magic Johnson appeared on ESPN and was critical of general manager Rob Pelinka. The roster still had Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. Anthony Davis was still a New Orleans Pelican.

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But the Lakers had a plan and, most importantly, Vogel had a message.

“There’s obviously a lot of outside noise like there is with every NBA team. But there’s going to be a lot of outside noise that we’re going to be tasked with blocking out,” he said during that news conference. “There’s going to be a lot of talk about our team getting back into the playoffs and what the Lakers represent in terms of a tradition of competing for championships. Those are end-result things.

The final weekend of sports in Los Angeles before the COVID-19 shutdown was one that continues to play out in the minds of the people who experienced it.

“We’re going to be focused on the work. The day-to-day. Stay in the moment.”

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It would have been impossible for Vogel to know all the moments that would come his team’s way. They were caught in the middle of a geopolitical scandal during the preseason. The franchise lost a legend at the midway point, then had to deal with a pandemic shutdown and a quarantined restart to get to here, to the edge of the biggest “end-result thing.”

As they lived through and processed the turmoil generated by their trip to China, Kobe Bryant’s death and COVID-19, they did so with a commitment to deal with what was directly in front of them.

After the Lakers took a 1-0 lead over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Vogel said it again, this time from a position of trust and experience. When he said it in his opening news conference, it was a plan. When he said it last Friday, it was a trait of his team.

“A stay-in-the-moment mind-set I don’t think ever goes away. I think the only thing we need to worry about right now is winning Game 2,” he said before the Lakers won Game 2. “But this is an opponent that we have great respect for, so what I do like about the stay-in-the-moment mind-set is, throughout the course of the season, that single-minded focus on that day’s work really builds great habits. That’s why we’ve had confidence throughout this playoff run.

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“We’ve had confidence in the habits that we’ve developed throughout the course of the season. We’ve talked all season long about these are the habits that are going to win for us in the playoffs.”

Guard Danny Green echoed that after a stunning Game 3 loss to Miami. “Mentally, emotionally, I think guys need to stay in the moment and not look at the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said of winning the title. " … Take it a step at a time, a possession at a time, a day at a time, and it goes from there.”

The big-picture goals have never been a secret. Even on that day back in the spring of 2019 when the Lakers looked like they were on a downward spiral, Pelinka talked about hanging a championship banner.

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As the season went on and it became clear that the Lakers were serious contenders, though, Vogel always tried to deflect big-picture talk. Around him, especially in the Florida bubble, some of that changed.

The goal wasn’t to come here and play hard and together. It wasn’t just to compete. It was to win — because of playing hard, playing together and embracing the competition.

The Lakers brought a banner with them to the bubble with the numbers 1 through 16 printed on it. After every playoff win, the number gets an “X” above it.

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After the Lakers wrapped up win No. 15 on Tuesday, Davis and LeBron James walked into the locker room together. With a camera from NBA Entertainment pointed directly in James’ face, the Lakers’ leader sternly said, “One more win.”

The job, as he’s said throughout the playoffs, isn’t done.

After a year of working through the process, of buying into Vogel’s demands, particularly on defense, the moment — the big one — is almost here.

“They are going to make adjustments” Davis said of the Heat after Game 4. “We’ve got to be prepared for it. We’re going to make adjustments. It’s going to be a big two days for us. Come out Game 5 and hopefully finish it off.”

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The Lakers get the chance to create a moment Friday that will live with them and their fans forever. And staying in that moment will be pretty sweet.


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