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Lakers are playing to win, not avoid losing

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Kobe Bryant is among the fortunate few NBA players who know plenty about both winning a championship and successfully defending it.

He thinks the Los Angeles Lakers spent most of the regular season just trying to avoid losing their title. In the past few weeks, the Lakers have been much more focused on winning another.

When Bryant stopped Saturday to ponder the difference between these two daunting tasks, he delivered an unusual amount of effusive praise for the way the Lakers have rebounded from a successful but trying regular season with three weeks of perhaps their best basketball in a year.

"They're not thinking about defending a title, they're thinking about winning one," Bryant said when asked how his greener teammates are responding to the stresses of repeating as champs.

With Bryant leading a balanced offense and a sturdy defensive effort, the Lakers have won six straight games heading into the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns, who also have won six in a row.

Bryant praised the Lakers' increased aggressiveness and poise. Coach Phil Jackson, no stranger to mind games and motivational ploys, sees it all as a function of the mental toughness necessary to persevere deep into June while talented clubs like Cleveland, Dallas and Atlanta can't keep their heads together.

Judging by the Lakers' response to the pressure of being defending champions over the first two rounds, Bryant thinks they'll maintain that focus through the long week before the conference finals begin Monday night at the Staples Center.

"It changes the sense of urgency that you play with," Bryant said. "You're playing with the confidence and the certain amount of attention you need to win something."

Fellow four-time NBA champ Derek Fisher echoed Bryant's sentiments.

Western Conference Finals

Game 1: Suns at Lakers

Monday, 7 p.m.