LOS ANGELES -- On the heels of consecutive losses in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers returned to practice in El Segundo on Wednesday afternoon with their series against the Phoenix Suns tied at two with a full understanding of how much the next one matters.
"It's a Game 5, the series is tied, and it's a must-win for us. The sense of urgency is total at this point," said forward Pau Gasol. "[Phoenix has] been tough. Now it's our turn to hit back and make sure we get that lead in the series."
After winning the first two games of the series at Staples Center by an average of 16.5 points, the Lakers seemed ready to cruise into the NBA Finals, to the point that conversation in the national media had already turned to a potential matchup between Los Angeles and the Boston Celtics. But while coach Phil Jackson expressed disappointment in the team's inability to win at least one game in Phoenix, he said their current predicament hardly ties them up in stomach-acid-laced knots like it might the average fan.
In fact, it's just the opposite.
"There's absolutely no doubt that we love this. This is what champions are made of. We had this situation with Oklahoma [City, in the first round]; we had it with Denver last year in the [Western Conference] finals," Jackson said. "It should be like this. This is what it should be if you have the best teams in the West going up against each other. It should come down to a challenge like this if teams have the grit and the ability that they're here."
Jackson acknowledged that back-to-back wins have given the Suns more confidence, but he still expects his team will perform.
"Like I told them," Jackson said, "if you can't meet this challenge, why go to the Finals?
If the Lakers are to rebound, they'll need to hit the glass. In Tuesday's 115-106 loss at US Airways Center in Phoenix, the Lakers lost the battle of the boards 51-36, despite their well-publicized size advantage. Eighteen of Phoenix's rebounds came on the offensive end, something Jackson believes had a significant impact.
"I thought Phoenix was able to come over our back and rattle us for four rebounds -- offensive rebounds -- in the first part of the game that set a tone for the ballgame that we weren't defensively as firm as I wanted us to be," he said. "We have this statement: 'Everything turns on a trifle.' The little things that happen -- and that's why I enumerated the fact that those rebounds that started off the game, with guys not securing them, not being firm with them -- allowed them to be aggressive in the course of the ballgame."
In their two victories, the Lakers outrebounded Phoenix by an average of 6.5 per game.
If history has anything to say about it, the Lakers should feel confident. They're a perfect 7-0 at home this postseason, 19-0 in Game 5s in series tied 2-2, and in Jackson's long coaching career with the Bulls and Lakers he's a perfect 46-0 after his teams take a 2-0 lead in a series.
Of course, history doesn't actually get to suit up and play, something Kobe Bryant made clear after Tuesday's loss.
"You can't rely on that. This is not last year. Just can't rely on that. We have to play with a sense of urgency and understand this team can beat us. And we've got to be ready to play," he said.
ESPN Stats & Research contributed to this report
Brian Kamenetzky writes the Land O' Lakers blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com