LOS ANGELES -- A Los Angeles Laker postseason road that has already wound through dark valleys and around sharp cliffs passed through an entirely different sort of danger Wednesday.
The desert speed trap.
With a dominant opening-game victory against the reeling Phoenix Suns in the trunk, the Lakers rolled into Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals as if it wasn't even there.
This wasn't a basketball game, but a gold convertible going 80-mph into a 35-mph zone.
And the Lakers got nabbed.
Until a certain kid smartly, calmly, brazenly talked them out of a ticket.
Calm when all around him were gasping, moving when all around him were standing, Kobe Bryant turned a team nightmare into a glorious five-second game of one-on-one.
He beat Jason Kidd with a 14-foot jumper with 2.9 seconds left, the Lakers beat the Suns, 97-96, the Staples Center rocked with rejoicing and relief.
''It was closer than the score would indicate,'' Laker owner Jerry Buss said.
Glenn Rice was even more succinct.
''Thank God it went in,'' Rice said.
''Exhausted fans who stayed until the end were left with a victory, a 2-0 series lead and one big question.
If the Lakers ever encounter a similar stretch of road this spring, would it be too much to ask that they pay a little closer attention?
''We have to put teams away,'' Rice said.
At first they were paying attention.
Midway through the third quarter they led by 13. Shaquille O'Neal was surviving a mugging. Brian Shaw was playing well in place of foul-plagued Bryant. Robert Horry was doing a better imitation of A.C. Green then A.C. Green.
Then came the sirens.
In the final quarter, they were outrebounded, outhustled and outworked.
Only Shaq's block of a Penny Hardaway runner with 22.9 seconds left spared them from defeat.
And only Kobe's jumper saved the victory.
''I tried to read the defense to see where everybody was,'' Bryant said. ''I just felt like I was in the backyard. I had a flashback to when I was a kid.
''I just tried to go right, cut left, and went up for a jump shot ... thank God it fell.''
They can now start sweating about the two weekend games in Phoenix.
But count on Phil Jackson to get them sweating plenty before that.
''You can get distracted real quickly with a game like this,'' Jackson said beforehand. ''You can take something like this for granted real easily.''
How right he was.
Before the game, upon receiving his MVP award, Shaquille O'Neal quickly told the roaring crowd that it belonged to the ''real coach of the year,'' and pointed to the tall bearded man on the Laker bench.
If only everyone had listened to him as much as O'Neal, whose 38 points and 20 rebounds were more than any two Lakers combined in those categories.
''We can't worry about Shaq being the MVP, we can't worry about what else is happening in the league, you have to stay focused game by game,'' Jackson said. ''Championship teams do that.''
Until Kobe's shot, in the fourth quarter, this team would not fit that description.
While Kobe's shot brought back memories of Jerry West, the previous few minutes brought back memories of recent postseasons.
You know, when the distractions won.
Remember the 1997 playoff game in which Nick Van Exel refused to come to the Laker bench to talk to Del Harris?
The next game, the Utah Jazz clinched the series.
Remember the playoffs in which Shaq accused George Karl of wearing a dress?
The next series, they were swept by the Jazz.
There have never been more off-court diversions than those being heaped on this team, what with the national focus increasing daily.
''The last two days, Phil has really been hitting this hard, talking about how we have to better ourselves every game no matter what the circumstance,'' John Salley said. ''In practice he even said that he hoped we watched Indiana almost lost to Philadelphia because they took them for granted.''
Again, it looked good early.
The Lakers started hot, were caught, then played floor-burning defense during one stretch early in the second quarter when they held the Suns scoreless on seven consecutive possessions.
Four of those times, Phoenix didn't even get off a shot, losing the ball into lunging Laker hands.
Then in the final 5:14 of the first half, O'Neal scored 10 points while the entire Sun team scored only 10,
What, you thought he was going to wear that MVP trophy like an ankle weight?
While other Lakers seemed to be looking ahead to Portland, O'Neal was only looking as far as Luc Longley.
All this even though, with Commissioner David Stern in the audience, the officials seemingly went out of their way to show that the Lakers are not given preferential treatment.
O'Neal was shoved and grabbed and pushed more than at any other time in the playoffs so far.
It became ridiculous late in the third quarter when Corie Blount held O'Neal's jersey and stretched it the approximate length of the foul lane.
That one, they called.
Beforehand, Stern took offense to suggestions that the referees would pamper NBC's golden goose.
''What somebody is saying is, 'You're a crook, you're committing a felony,'' he said of such reports. ''When people who are serious members of the media utter that, they're ignorant.''
Turns out, the Lakers didn't need any help in nearly blowing this game.
Any good team can get up for a deciding game.
Only a mature one can completely focus on the games that aren't.
To win a championship, the Lakers need to be both.
After Wednesday, we need to see more.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.