DENVER -- Lamar Odom stood with his back to the media and started picking up all the loose items in his locker. He enveloped his hand around a bottle of Chloraseptic and squirted a couple sprays into his mouth before placing the red liquid in his bag. He tucked his shampoo and conditioner into a zip-up compartment in the front. In went the cell phone, iPod and wallet. He organized a considerable kitty of Willy Wonka candy that was sent to him as a gift. And he finally rattled a packet of Tic-Tacs and popped a couple of mints before turning to face the media.
A lone article escaped the grasp of the man with the seven-foot wingspan -- his 2009 Western Conference champions hat.
The cap lay neglected in a heap behind Odom's right foot, sharing space with discarded ankle tape and a towel that Odom spread out on the floor to stand on while he changed after his shower.
After staring at the glare from the bright lights of the television cameras for about a minute, Odom bent down in the middle of a question -- bad back and all -- surely to retrieve the hat, right? No, L.O. just wanted the crummy towel to wipe the sweat from his face.
A trip to The Finals won't cut it for this Lakers team. That conference champions cap means about as much to him as the little tinfoil lid that covers the mouth of a sports drink once you unscrew the top. You know, the one that's always difficult to peel off when you're really, really thirsty. It's just a necessary step towards satisfaction.
That's what the grueling six-game conference finals series was against Denver after all. The Nuggets tested the Lakers, stealing L.A.'s home court in Game 2 and protecting it's own in Game 4, giving L.A. two smelling-salt battles that finally woke the Lakers up from the apprehension of the moment that plagued them against the Rockets and finally got a sense of it.
"It's good to be here, but it's not our goal," said Trevor Ariza, who scored 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting in the clincher after making game-changing steals late in Games 1 and 3 to nab Lakers victories. "It was just a step. I think we will ... I know we will be happy when we get that ring."
Getting there isn't nearly enough. This is the Lakers' 30th trip to The Finals. Its Phil Jackson's 12th go of it. It is Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher's sixth time around. The franchise craves title No. 15. Jackson would be unmatched in the coaching fraternity if he get's his 10th ring. Bryant and Fisher, both in their 13th season, realize that this might be their best chance for the rest of their careers to capture their fourth championship together. Everybody else -- Pau Gasol, Odom, Andrew Bynum and the like -- are yearning for their first diamond encrusted finger adornment.
"It's different," Bryant said. "We're very thankful of being in this position. But [shrugging], we did it last year. We're ready to move on the NBA Finals and try to take care of business."
They know how their business is taken care of after 18 games through three rounds. Utah taught them to shut the door when they had a big lead. Houston taught them to respect their opponent and come out with maximum effort and intensity from the opening tip. Denver was the ultimate lesson in the major impacts that minor changes can have, from executing defensive rotations correctly to swinging the ball and making that one extra pass to give the triangle the proper spacing it requires to operate at its peak efficiency.
"We found our balance," Gasol said. "We did a good job overall as a group working hard and getting it done. So we'll keep it that way."
Bynum was the one Lakers player to indulge in the complimentary white t-shirt and black hat awarded to the winners, relishing his role on the court this time around after sitting out last season with a knee injury, even if he only scored two points in the clinching game.
"It's great to be a part of it this time," an ebullient Bynum said before shifting his focus mere minutes later. "We just have to get this ring."
It's not about what's on their heads, it's where their heads are at.