Lakers' troubles a distant memory

SALT LAKE CITY -- Remember when the Lakers used to give you reason to doubt?

When the foam fingers flew on Christmas Day against Cleveland?

When they let Denver, Houston, Utah and Orlando all beat them in revenge games after eliminating them last season in the playoffs?

When Phil Jackson said he planned to go 5-0 on a late-season road trip and came home 2-3?

When Ron was concussed, Pau was hamstrung and Kobe was getting old?

Remember when losing to the Nuggets and the Mavericks was a sign of the Western Conference being up for grabs?

When the bench was busted?

When not being able to win in Portland was going to be a problem in the playoffs?

When Gasol was unhappy with his touches and they couldn't defend the pick-and-roll and they shot 3-pointers about as well as Justin Bieber keeps his hair out of his eyes?

All those thoughts should be memories as distant as when Palm Pilots were hot and Corey Feldman was cool after Monday's 111-96 win in Game 4 to sweep the Utah Jazz and move ahead to a Western Conference finals matchup against the Phoenix Suns.

All that stuff from the past matters to their potential success in reaching a repeat title about as much as the Beatles' being told "guitar music is on the way out" and being rejected by the first recording company they approached, or Bill Gates' dropping out of Harvard.

It's not about always getting it right; it's about getting it right at the right time.
Monday was as much an announcement to the Suns, Magic, Cavaliers and Celtics that the Lakers are still the team to beat as it was a victory.

"We had one of our better games tonight," Jackson said.

And that comes in the midst of the Lakers playing their best basketball of the season. Los Angeles has won six games in a row, having not lost since April 24.

Bryant finished with 32 points in the closeout game, pushing his stats over the past five games to 32 points per game on 58-for-113 shooting (51.3 percent). This from the same guy who entered the playoffs averaging 22 points on 30.3 percent shooting from the field spanning his last three games played in the regular season, plus Game 1 against Oklahoma City.

"We just got better," Kobe Bryant said. "We just continued to work. We improved as a ballclub."

Pau Gasol shook off respiratory congestion to score 33 points in Game 4 after only 14 in Game 3. It eclipsed his high-scoring game during the regular season by one, and served as a testament to his level of play reaching a high note after consistently raising it since mid-March.

"I'm happy with the way I'm playing, but I'm happier with the way we're playing," Gasol said.

Just about the only bad part about the road trip for the Lakers was that Derek Fisher was reminded that there are some "bad people" in Utah (as Bryant put it), and that it rained Monday.

OK, so Gasol dropped to 0-for-6 on the season from 3-point range too, but you can't expect perfection. (Plus, his Dream Shake in the second quarter was executed so perfectly you would have thought Gasol spent time playing young grasshopper to Hakeem Olajuwon last summer, not Bryant.)

Yes, they let a 22-point second-quarter lead dwindle to five in the third quarter, but they pushed it back to 13 before the fourth quarter began. That was as much about the Jazz's fortitude as any Lakers failure.

When Bryant gets it going on an individual basis, it's described simply as "that look," and that's exactly what the Lakers have from top to bottom: They look as if they have something to prove.

Andrew Bynum proved he can play through injuries. Lamar Odom proved he'll always find a way to be known for being great in the things he does, rather than being known as a disappointment for the things he doesn't do.

Fisher proved he can still play 40-minute games as if he were a 25-year-old, rather than a 35-year-old.

Shannon Brown proved he can be just as effective shooting from the outside as he can be dunking the ball, even if he came into Game 4 shooting just 3 for his past 11 on 3-pointers.

"We always had confidence in what we can do out there," Brown said. "We knew why we lost. It was never one of them, 'How did that happen?' It was, 'We didn't do this, we didn't do that, we got to get better.' We knew we had to do it, and we never doubted it would happen."

Ron Artest proved he remembers how to make a 3-pointer.

"We're in a zone and we're driving now, we're driving," Artest said.

And they're driving down a road that looks clear, after all those potholes marred their trip during the regular season.

"I think it's the experience of our team," Jackson said. "These guys know that you have to save the best for last."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.