Lakers believing in their potential

LOS ANGELES -- Things have obviously changed since the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns met in the 2010 Western Conference finals.

While Phoenix and L.A. were getting ready for tipoff at Staples Center on Friday, Amare Stoudemire was in New York playing for the Knicks, Lamar Odom was in Philadelphia playing for the Dallas Mavericks, Jason Richardson was in Orlando playing for the Magic and Shannon Brown was in the visitors' locker room getting ready to put on an orange uniform rather than slipping on a purple and gold one like he had done for the previous 2½ seasons.

For all that has changed in the rivalry, from roster shuffling to both teams' places in the standings -- the 12-19 Suns are the third-worst team in the West, and the 18-12 Lakers have been maddeningly inconsistent this season -- there's one constant presence that keeps the Lakers, well, the Lakers.

"As long as they have No. 24, they will be thought of that way," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said before the game, referencing Kobe Bryant's uniform number.

"That way" is as championship contenders, of course.

There have been times this season when the Lakers have looked anything but -- the 23rd-best scoring offense (93.48 points per game), 29th-best 3-point shooting offense (29.8 percent) and dead-last bench scoring numbers (20.7 points per game) come to mind. Not to mention those losses when late leads disappeared like ice cubes dropped into a hot cup of coffee.

But then there are the positives that shouldn't be ignored -- the fourth-stingiest defense (90.45 points allowed), the third-best defense in terms of opponents' accuracy (41.7 percent shooting allowed) and the 6-2 record in games against the top eight teams in the West.

"Their record doesn't really matter," Gentry said. "They still have him, as long as they have him and they got [Andrew] Bynum and they got [Pau] Gasol. … At the end of the day, are you telling me that anyone would want to play them in the playoffs in the first round? No. I don't think so. I don't think anybody is begging to play them in the playoffs in the first round."

"Him" is Bryant, of course.

Bryant didn't go off for 40 against Phoenix the way he did the last two times the teams met, but he was close. Bryant scored 18 of his 36 points in the third quarter to push the Lakers' lead up to 20 before the team went on cruise control the rest of the game.

And Bryant is playing even better now than he did in the 2010 West finals against Phoenix. Back then he was hobbling around on one leg, getting his knee drained three times throughout the course of those playoffs.

Now he's moving around the best he has in years thanks to a trip to Germany for a knee procedure in the offseason, and he declared that torn ligament in his right wrist fully healed last week.

While Bryant is improbably chasing a third scoring title in this, his 16th season, leading the league with a 28.9 points-per-game average, he's more importantly chasing a sixth championship ring.

"We're going to move up," Bryant said when informed of Gentry's remarks. "This 18-12 thing is, we're going to be much [better]. We're what, 13-2 at home? We're going to move up. We're going to improve on the road. Our rotations are stabilizing. We'll shoot the ball much better from the 3-point line. We're going to move up. It's not like we're just some underdog team that teams don't want to face. No, we're going to be a force."

Just more than two weeks ago, Bryant was managing expectations, telling reporters: "Because of the changes in the players and so forth, you just can't come out of the gates and fight for a 1 seed or a 2 seed. … That's just not realistic."

After the team put up a season-high 111 points against Phoenix and the bench actually looked like a unit that could help the Lakers rather than harm them, chipping in 34 points on a combined 13-for-20 shooting, there was a defiant confidence coming from not only Bryant, but coach Mike Brown as well.

"Eighteen and 12 is [an] ideal [record] because we need to struggle," Brown said. "Because it ain't going to be easy for us in the playoffs. We need to struggle. We need to see if we're tough enough mentally to withstand all the noise that's outside our locker room. One of the things I told our guys, which is tough here in L.A., is there's a lot of noise outside of the locker room. Whether it be from fans, media, whatever, and our guys have to ignore the noise.

"I knew we were going to get socked on the chin because I didn't have enough time to figure out what I had. So it starts with me. Then, to our guys' credit, they were searching too. I'm not saying we have arrived, because we have not, but we are getting better. … The way we play, it's a playoff-style game. It's a possession game. It's a grind-it, pound-it game. … I'll bet on us in the playoffs."

The Lakers have believers, and as impressive as it is to hear from opponents, it's even more meaningful to hear they still believe in themselves as much as ever.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.