Lakers head into Game 5 full of confidence
By Marty Burns, Sports Illustrated
PHILADELPHIA -- It was a night out on the town, perhaps their final chance to have one as a team.
The Lakers weren't going to sit around the hotel on the eve of what could be their coronation as NBA champions. So several players got together Thursday night and headed to Bookbinder's, a popular Philly haunt, for steaks and seafood.
They laughed and joked. They ate and drank. They talked basketball into the evening.
Judging from their public behavior, the Lakers appear quite confident they'll wrap up the NBA title Friday night in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Not even the memory of last year's 33-point Game 5 loss in Indiana, when they blew a chance to clinch on the road, seems to concern them.
"We talked about it right after [Game 4]," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant says.
"We put ourselves in a nice situation last year and got blown out. But we feel like we've matured so much this season."
Given L.A.'s amazing road success this postseason, why shouldn't they be confident? Of all the Lakers' many accomplishments this year, their 7-0 mark away from Staples Center heading into Friday's Game 5 might be the most remarkable. Maybe even more than going 14-1 overall in the postseason.
Thus far in the playoffs, the Lakers have had to win in snake pits like the Rose Garden, Arco Arena, the Alamodome and now the First Union Center. Those were four of the toughest places to play during the regular season, with visitors winning only 41 of 164 games (25 percent). Most teams would have been ecstatic to be .500.
In the NBA, playoff road games mean fired-up crowds, energized opponents and occasionally one-sided officiating. It means leather-lunged fans spewing invective behind the bench and homemade placards telling the visiting star where to stick his millions. In Game 4, Philly fans booed Bryant so lustily, they practically shook the glass windows of the luxury skyboxes.
Yet, instead of cowering on the road, the Lakers seem to thrive on it. "It's been quite noticeable this year," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said. "They understand the intense pressure, the way games are refereed, the physical contact, the ability to run the offense, their defensive responsibilities, [and] their poise under noise or intense, hostile territory."
Jackson deserves a lot of credit for turning the Lakers into the NBA's road warriors. He not only prepares his teams well, but he also is a master at fostering a kind of us-against-the-world mentality that helps bring his teams together under duress. His old Bulls teams, led by Michael Jordan, were famous for raiding visiting arenas like a band of Hell's Angels.
Now the NBA's scariest gang wears purple-and-gold. You can find them some nights at a Bookbinder's or some other local establishment, eating and drinking and carrying on. They might laugh and joke, but when they show up for work at your local basketball palace, they're all business.
Just ask the Blazers, Kings, Spurs and Sixers.