Last week, on their way to a Staples Center parking lot following the Lakers' 77-106 blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in game two of the Western Conference Finals, two fans discussed the debacle.

"Man, I can't believe how bad they were," said one. "They missed open shots!"

"Yeah," said the other. "They're going to have to play better than that to beat them up in Portland."

"Looks bad," said the first. "But they can do it if they play together."

They can do it. Those words mark a newly positive attitude about the team that has propelled enthusiasm to levels not seen in years. Now in the third round of the playoffs, the Lakers are the hottest ticket in town. Television ratings are up, and local sports-radio shows discuss little else. Further, the amount of money people are willing to shell out to see a game at Staples Center is considerable.

"People want to see the Lakers," said Brad Schy, president of the ticket agency Musical Chairs in Brentwood. "Tickets are going for anywhere from $75 for the upper (level) seats to $1,200 for the first or second row center court. And seats on the floor are going for four or five thousand (dollars)."

That's a huge premium on the original price of the tickets. The regular-season face value of a center court seat now going for $1,200 is about $150, although it's slightly more for the playoffs.

Given the buzz surrounding both the brand-new, state-of-the-art Staples Center and the Lakers, paying five or even 10 times the face value of a good ticket is not considered unreasonable.

"When you combine the fact that that this is Staples' first year with the championship run of the Lakers, more people are throwing caution to the wind to be part of it," said L.A. sports consultant David Carter. "You've got people willing to pay any cost to see it live."

The Lakers ended the regular season with the best record in the NBA 67 wins and 15 losses and were quickly anointed the post-season favorites to win it all. Their battle with the Trail Blazers to be the Western Conference representative to the championship round was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as the "de facto finals," because the winner is expected to beat the Eastern Conference representative (either the New York Knicks or the Indiana Pacers).

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