Page turned, Lakers didn’t fold

Experience shows in this LA edition

By Robert Mays
Globe Correspondent / June 10, 2010

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Two years ago, it went quickly. The double-digit lead didn’t trickle away. It hemorrhaged. And as the Lakers watched a 20-point third-quarter advantage vanish in less than six minutes, they also saw Game 4 of the 2008 Finals and a chance to even the series with the Celtics go with it.

The burn was slower Tuesday night, but as shot after shot clanked off the rim in the second half of Game 3 in these Finals, what was once a 17-point Los Angeles lead shrank to 1, and it seemed that Boston’s resilience might win out again. The difference was that two years later, time and togetherness have made this Lakers team tough enough to stop the bleeding.

Inexperience riddled the Lakers roster as the 2008 Finals began. Pau Gasol had joined the team only four months earlier, and the Lakers’ rotation was infantile in its familiarity with one another. And while Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher seemed to have enough championship jewelry for an entire team, nearly every other member of the team had never faced the elements of a Finals series.

“It was a tough task to sort of absorb everything and still be certain and assertive out there,’’ said Gasol.

The 2008 Celtics dominated the Lakers mentally and physically. Kevin Garnett brought a level of physicality to the series that the Lakers frontcourt simply couldn’t match, and as a result, Gasol’s toughness became a major question.

This time, the Lakers’ frontcourt includes a healthy Andrew Bynum, and the performance of him and Gasol in the Game 1 win put most of the doubts about Los Angeles’s physical toughness to rest.

But it still wasn’t clear how the Lakers would handle a big Boston run like the one they saw in Game 4 of the 2008 series. And just before the fourth quarter began Tuesday, Fisher wanted to make sure that the confidence his team showed in Los Angeles carried over into a tight game that seemed to be slipping away. With just a 6-point lead heading into the quarter, Fisher told his teammates they were in a position of power, not panic.

“I just wanted to make sure we didn’t feel like we somehow failed because the lead had got cut to 6 points,’’ Fisher said. “I mean, you’re in the Finals. To think that you’re going to get a lead and coast home with it is not realistic.’’

Los Angeles’s performance in the fourth quarter showed just how comfortable the team has gotten in crucial situations. Instead of relying on Kobe Bryant to be the automatic closer, the Lakers leaned on several role players to assert themselves down the stretch. Lamar Odom’s rebound and basket after a Fisher miss extended the lead back to 3 and Ron Artest forced a Glen Davis turnover near half-court that allowed Los Angeles to push the lead to 5.

Fisher was a picture of calm throughout the quarter. The veteran point guard helped preserve the lead with a combination of runners, jumpers, and a coast-to-coast layup that turned into a 3-point play and gave the Lakers a 6-point lead with 48.3 seconds remaining.

Sharing a backcourt with Bryant means that Fisher has never been the Lakers guard lauded for his mental toughness. But for all the talk about Bryant’s focus, Fisher’s trials during the 2010 playoffs have shown that he isn’t quick to succumb to pressure, either. His struggles with quicker point guards in the earlier rounds were the subject of plenty of criticism.

In fact, there have been doubts surrounding most of the players in the Lakers rotation at one point or another, from Odom’s consistency to Gasol’s toughness to Bryant’s ability to interact with his teammates. Dealing with those doubts has allowed this team to succeed where the 2008 version fell short.

“Every man on that court has his own story of tragedy, of triumph,’’ Odom said. “To get to this level, you have to persevere.’’

This year’s Lakers have been forced to, both individually and as a group, and with three straight trips to the Finals, they’ve used their time together to become comfortable in what they’re capable of.

“There’s more experience as a group, more character,’’ Gasol said. “We’ve been successful at this level last year, and we have that confidence we didn’t have before.’’

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