The swingman says last year's playoff collapse was a learning experience.
By KEVIN DING
The Orange County Register
EL SEGUNDO – Luke Walton has been on a team that made the NBA Finals. And he sees these Lakers as good enough to be there again - this season.
"I expect to be in the (NBA) Finals this year," Walton said Saturday. "We could've done it last year. We had a young team that had never really been there together. I think you really grow a lot from what we went through - losing the 3-1 (lead) to a great team like Phoenix in the playoffs."
Walton said the vibe in training camp is "definitely the best feeling" since his rookie season, when the 2003-'04 Lakers reached the NBA Finals on the star power of Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton.
What Walton likes in the current Lakers is a growing communal spirit that feels special, one that wasn't quite established last season.
"There were so many times through the whole season where we were losing close games because we really didn't have that confidence about us," Walton said. "We had it about Kobe, but not about us as a team."
Walton foresees the Lakers winning more of the close games they lost last season and positioning themselves to make better postseason use of Bryant.
"The thing about basketball, when you get to the playoffs, every game comes down to the very end," Walton said. "We've got the best clutch player in the game on our team. So we feel as long as we play like a team and hopefully get a better seed than seventh and have home-court advantage, then we can win that and move on. And we match up pretty well against a lot of teams in the Western Conference."
The Lakers were already competitive with most of the league's top teams last season, bolstering Walton's faith.
"If you look at last year, we had a great chance at knocking off Phoenix," Walton said. "Granted, we didn't take care of business, but they (the Suns) went all the way to the Western Conference finals and lost to Dallas. And Dallas had a great chance at winning the NBA Finals, so we feel like we're at that level. We don't feel like there's a team out there that's just better than us."
Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw cited Kwame Brown, Walton, Danilo Pinnock, Jordan Farmar and Brian Cook as most impressive in the team's extensive scrimmages Saturday night. Shaw served as Brown's primary confidant last season, and going into this season, Shaw said he's telling Brown: "Keep riding that wave of confidence." ...
Small forward Maurice Evans on the triangle offense: "People don't realize the complexity of this offense. Guys like Kobe and (Michael) Jordan make it look so easy. Even guys like Rick Fox grew into the position and did so well that you kind of take it for granted how much you have to learn." ...
Walton is wearing tights to keep his legs warm in training camp. He tore his left hamstring in camp a year ago.
I'd been wondering why we hadn't heard anything from or about Luke... I wonder how his jumper is looking this year, he had developed a couple of nifty across-the-lane moves by the end of last season, and a quasi-reliable 3-pt shot from the corners. If he improved his midrange game at all he'll be a great guy to bring off the bench and make sure the offense keeps flowing.