EL SEGUNDO — Kobe Bryant is among the fortunate few NBA players who know plenty about both winning a championship and successfully defending it.
He thinks the Los Angeles Lakers spent most of the regular season just trying to avoid losing their title. In the past few weeks, the Lakers have been much more focused on winning another.
When Bryant stopped Saturday to ponder the difference between these two daunting tasks, he delivered an unusual amount of effusive praise for the way the Lakers have rebounded from a successful but trying regular season with three weeks of perhaps their best basketball in a year.
“They’re not thinking about defending a title, they’re thinking about winning one,” Bryant said when asked how his greener teammates are responding to the stresses of repeating as champs.
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With Bryant leading a balanced offense and a sturdy defensive effort, the Lakers have won six straight games heading into the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns, who also have won six in a row.
After participating in a portion of Los Angeles’ latest practice, Bryant praised the Lakers’ increased aggressiveness and poise over the past few weeks.
Coach Phil Jackson, no stranger to mind games and motivational ploys, sees it all as a function of the mental toughness necessary to persevere deep into June while talented clubs like Cleveland, Dallas and Atlanta can’t keep their heads together.
Judging by the Lakers’ response to the pressure of being defending champions over the first two rounds, Bryant thinks they’ll maintain that focus through the long week before the conference finals begin Monday night at Staples Center.
Bryant didn’t participate in every drill in Saturday’s workout while resting a cornucopia of minor injuries, including a gimpy ankle and an arthritic finger. Rest is another key to the Lakers’ success, given the accumulated toll of three straight seasons of deep playoff runs — along with the 2008 Olympic summer thrown into the mix for Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Fellow four-time NBA champ Derek Fisher echoed Bryant’s sentiments, saying the Lakers have shifted into a playoff mode.
“There’s been a little bit of an adjustment, at least by our play,” Fisher said. “It looked like we were playing to protect something, as opposed to going to get something. I think since the playoffs started, we’ve been playing more to go get something than to keep from losing something.”
He believes that high-concept idea translates into an overall aggressiveness in the Lakers’ game — a willingness to take risks while still sticking within Jackson’s basic framework. When Oklahoma City evened their first-round series at two games apiece, Los Angeles responded with a dominant 111-87 victory in Game 5, knocking back a talented young opponent.
The Lakers then never even allowed the Utah Jazz to think they could play with the champs, dispatching them twice in emphatic fashion at Staples Center.
Jackson believes such playoff poise usually must be learned through tough experience. Bryant and Fisher are the Lakers’ only holdovers from the championship teams in 2000-02, and Jackson doesn’t need to ask either veteran to lead.
“They keep kind of an even keel for the rest of the players because of their experience,” Jackson said. “Now Pau is at the point with the number of playoff games he’s played that he’s starting to show that, too.”