LOS ANGELES — The Lakers' swagger is more of a stagger after consecutive losses in the Western Conference finals.
After leaving town last week to chants of "We want Boston," Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol realize they won't even get the chance to defend their NBA title unless Los Angeles starts defending the Phoenix Suns.
Although Gasol says Game 5 on Thursday night is "a must-win for us," the champions' California cool shows few signs of cracking, beyond Bryant's grumbling about missed defensive assignments.
After surviving a near-identical jam in last season's conference finals against Denver, the Lakers came away with a confidence they can rise to any occasion — even a best-two-of-three series against a surging, shot-making opponent with rising confidence of its own.
"There's absolutely no doubt that we love this," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Wednesday, not sounding much like a coach planning to fill out retirement papers next month. "This is what champions are made of. If you have the best teams in the West going up against each other, it should come down to a challenge like this. ... This is what basketball at this level is. Like I told them, 'If you can't meet this challenge, then why go to the finals?'"
The Lakers have been in this situation three previous times over the past two playoffs: a series tied at 2, with Game 5 at home. Los Angeles won each time, beating Houston and the Nuggets last season before trouncing Oklahoma City last month in the first round. Overall, they've won Game 5 seven straight times at home.
Yet the Suns hold every smidgen of momentum heading back to Staples Center after winning the last two games with a gimmicky zone defense, impressive bench play and another phenomenal exhibition of offense. Los Angeles' 58 percent shooting in its first two victories masked its full series of ineffective defense so far: Los Angeles has yielded 113 points per game, and Phoenix has shaken off a brief spell of outside shooting problems.
At least the Lakers are back home, where they haven't lost in seven playoff games this spring.
"The momentum we have, the confidence we have now, is definitely going to help us going to L.A.," said Suns forward Amare Stoudemire, who shook off two mediocre games at the Staples Center with big efforts in Phoenix. "We definitely can win there. It's just a matter of us implementing our will."
Will was a popular topic in El Segundo as well, with Bryant declaring that most of the Lakers' problems are mental lapses on execution and assignments. After nearly posting a triple-double in Game 4, Bryant lamented Los Angeles' inability to stick to its assignments when the Suns repeatedly ran their pick-and-roll, drive-and-dish offense.
"My message is offensively, we're going to score enough points," Bryant said. "Defensively, we've got to do a much better job. That's my message. We've got to grind, do a better job staying in front of them."
The Lakers uniformly downplayed the importance of Phoenix's zone defense, a 2-3 scheme that puts defenders on both sides of Los Angeles' post players. The Lakers' shooting decreased sharply in Phoenix, but Jackson snorted at the idea he's being outmaneuvered, noting his club still scored 107.5 points per game in Arizona.
Suns coach Alvin Gentry will have to miss his son's elementary school graduation on Thursday night after his club avoided the sweep that seemed highly possible after its first two losses in L.A.
Gentry persuaded his players to stick with his simple defensive scheme in the past two games. The Suns allowed Bryant to work his usual offensive magic but forced the Lakers' low-post scorers to work extra hard for shots — or to give up the ball to the Lakers' rather ordinary perimeter shooters, including Derek Fisher, Ron Artest and Shannon Brown.
"We want to stop everyone, but sometimes you just can't stop Kobe," Suns guard Steve Nash said of Bryant, who's averaging 28.9 points per game in the playoffs. "So we can't get discouraged. He's playing as well as maybe he's ever played right now. He may continue to do that. We've proven we can win if he plays great, but we've got to be really solid. We've got to be tough. We've got to win all the little battles, because they do have some matchups and talent that we don't have."
Jackson echoed Nash's concerns about the little things, citing a few offensive rebounds the Lakers failed to secure in the first quarter of Game 4. Those mistakes eventually snowballed into team-wide problems with execution, even after the Lakers took care of almost every detail in the first two games while extending their playoff winning streak to eight games.
"We understood that it was going to be hard," Gasol said. "The first two results we obtained gave us a good feeling, but we knew the Suns were going to bounce back, and they have."
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Bryant and center Andrew Bynum didn't appear to practice with the Lakers on Wednesday, although Jackson didn't say for sure. Bynum is playing on an injured right knee that will require surgery, while Bryant simply takes advantage of every chance to rest his accumulated injuries.
Western Conference Finals
L.A. Lakers 2, Phoenix 2
L.A. Lakers 128, Phoenix 107
L.A. Lakers 124, Phoenix 112
Phoenix 118, L.A. Lakers 109
Phoenix 115, L.A. Lakers 106
Today: Phoenix at L.A. Lakers, 7 p.m.
Saturday: L.A. Lakers at Phoenix, 6:30 p.m.
x-Monday: Phoenix at L.A. Lakers, 7 p.m.
x- if necessary