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Their improved play is key to any playoff success the Lakers will have.

By KEVIN DING

LOS ANGELES – One of Kevin Garnett's recent complaints about his dead-end existence in Minnesota was that the Timberwolves have been unable to identify their core - the players who, with Garnett, are the team's foundation.

For the Lakers, a look at the salary list shows that, besides Kobe Bryant, there are only two players with guaranteed contracts for two seasons beyond this one - and they are the highest-paid on the team this season after Bryant. The Lakers' core is Bryant, Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown, and if the team is to make a mark in the upcoming playoffs, Odom and Brown must continue to be consistent standouts.

Brown has made a quantum leap since being thrust into the role of starting center, when Chris Mihm sprained his ankle March 12. That changed the scope of Brown's existence because Coach Phil Jackson did not have a plan for giving Brown such an opportunity at the center position, a spot where Jackson now acknowledges Brown is "much more comfortable" than at power forward.

Brown said he viewed the opportunity more in terms of helping a team that had been getting a lot from Mihm than asserting himself individually.

"I just tried to turn a negative into a positive by not having a letdown for the team," Brown said.

Brown was given the security of the third year of his contract being guaranteed after the Lakers saw Yao Ming and Amare Stoudemire sign contract extensions to preclude becoming 2007 free agents.

"It's something that I figured I had to earn by playing," Brown said of his contract guarantee. "But I guess it happened early because of the two guys getting signed. It just means I can lock in and be a little more focused."

Whereas Brown's focus has been manifest in more fundamentally sound play - resulting in a season-high 15 rebounds Tuesday - Odom's focus has resulted in more vigorous offense and his first Lakers triple-double Tuesday.

"I feel confident," Odom said. "I am comfortable right now. I am just going out there, rebounding and making plays. My shots are falling, and I am trying also to keep everybody involved."

One key area of Odom's game that has developed has been finishing around the basket. Where he often ran into traffic or missed layups, Odom is coming cleanly to the rim and dunking more.

Part of it is that Odom "sees spaces on the floor a little bit better," Jackson said. But part of it is physical: Odom has been working with Lakers athletic performance coordinator Alex McKechnie on exercises to improve his explosion.

"It has really benefited him a lot," Jackson said. "It has made a difference power-wise. It has been beautiful to watch him going to the basket and making these moves he has been making the past few games."

"He knows when to attack," Bryant said. "That's what you see with Lamar. It's like a quarterback reading coverages."

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