A quiet confidence is oozing through the Los Angeles Lakers as they bid for their first NBA championship since 2001-02.
League MVP Kobe Bryant and his team mates have found a way to win their first four games of the season, despite not always being at their best, and steely defense has been their watchword.
They held off a spirited display by city rivals the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, producing an unanswered burst of 22 points late in the final quarter to cap a 106-88 victory at a packed Staples Center.
"It was all about getting a win," versatile guard Jordan Farmartold reporters after the Western Conference champions had beaten the Clippers for a sixth consecutive time. "We never want to lose to our crosstown rivals.
"We've been playing good basketball even though we have not shot the ball extremely well. We are finding ways to win ball games and that's big in the tight Western Conference. We all know it's going to be tight again this year."
Although the Lakers were outplayed by the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics in last season's NBA finals, they have been widely tipped to clinch the 2008-09 title.
Spaniard Pau Gasol has been changed into a power forward and the Lakers are banking on a breakthrough campaign by seven-foot center Andrew Bynum, who missed much of last season with a knee injury.
The 21-year-old Bynum is part of a potent starting five with Bryant, Gasol, veteran guard Derek Fisher and Vladimir Radmanovic while Farmar and Lamar Odom spearhead arguably the strongest second unit in the NBA.
"They are better right now and they are everybody's favorite," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said of the Lakers. "They are big, they are athletic, they come together well and they have a tremendous amount of talent."
For All-Star guard Bryant and Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the biggest plus-factor this season has been defense.
"You look at the four games so far and we've been pretty consistent in how our opposition has been shooting from the field," said Bryant, who helped the Lakers win three consecutive NBA championships from 2000-2002.
"Even though we have games where we might not shoot the ball particularly well, we defend and we try to keep our opposition to a lower percentage from the field as well."
Jackson added: "The mantra is that defense wins ball games. If you just rely on your offense all the time, it's going to disappoint you at some level."
The upbeat mood in the Lakers camp was best reflected by Farmar.
"We were so close (to the championship) last year and we think we have all the pieces to the puzzle," he said. "We have a lot of unselfish guys who know what it feels like to get down and lose and who are really hungry to get it done this year.
"We have the whole city behind us; everyone is happy, energetic and excited. So we are looking forward to continuing this season the way we've been going."
The Lakers host the Houston Rockets on Sunday, the first of four games in six days.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)
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