Lakers' 6-0 road trip last season reveals applicable trends for upcoming games
The Lakers may not all agree, but the magnitude of the team's eight consecutive road games spanning 13 days can't be overstated.
It's not just because the Lakers, with the league's best record at 32-9, have played most of the first half of the season at home, compiling a 23-3 record at Staples Center. It's not just because the Lakers are 9-6 on the road, including losses at Denver, Houston, Utah, Portland and San Antonio. It's not just because four of the eight teams the Lakers visit are at least .500, adding difficulty to a trip that also includes three back-to-backs.
It's because the Lakers' performance the next two weeks could create a trickle effect that may influence the playoff picture.
Need proof? The Lakers went 6-0 last season in a stretch from late January to early February, including signature wins at Cleveland and Boston, en route to an NBA title. The same thing happened in the Lakers' 1999-2000 season, where a 6-0 trip was part of a 19-game winning streak. It paved the way for the team's first of three consecutive championships. And it's not like the Lakers have an entirely comfortable lead for the league's top spot, with Cleveland trailing with a 32-11 mark.
"That was really a momentum breaker for us in the season," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of the team's six consecutive road wins last season. "It gave us the dominant confidence last year that we needed to take."
So why does that matter this season? After all, last team's roster was different. Artest and Trevor Ariza essentially switched places with the Lakers and Houston Rockets this offseason. And the Lakers didn't trade Vladimir Radmanovic for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown until a day before the trip ended.
But the reasons why the Lakers won those games are still applicable for these upcoming road games, beginning tonight at Cleveland. (The other road games include Friday at New York, Sunday at Toronto, Tuesday at Washington, Wednesday at Indiana, Friday at Philadelphia, the following Sunday at Boston and the following Monday at Memphis).
Those factors include the team's ability to overcome adversity, Kobe Bryant's shooting and the inside presence of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. If the Lakers stay consistent in those three areas, it's likely their trip will be more enjoyable than the ones Clark Griswold or Lloyd Christmas traveled.
It could also determine whether the Lakers reach at least five wins, the benchmark Jackson said he's calculated for the trip.
"I'm setting a low bar for this team so they'll respond," he deadpanned.
The Lakers entered last season's trip looking to rebound from a double-overtime loss to Charlotte. In Jackson's words, he hoped ahead of time that the team had accepted the loss and "flushed it down the toilet and let it go."
Consider it done. The Lakers opened the trip with a dominant 132-119 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, led by Andrew Bynum's 27 points and 15 rebounds.
With Bynum posting his fifth consecutive double- double, the longest streak of his career, it appeared he had turned a corner. He had averaged 26.2 points, 14 rebounds and 3.2 blocks over those last five games, performances that weren't exactly typical after undergoing surgery on his left kneecap the previous May.
The Lakers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies the next day, 115-98, but didn't escape unscathed.
Barely five minutes into the game, Bryant collided with Bynum, who immediately yelled, pounding the court with his fist as he stayed down for about two minutes. Bynum sprained his right knee, an injury that ultimately sidelined him for 32 games.
Yet, the Lakers were able to go 4-0 without Bynum the remainder of the trip.
Although Bynum isn't currently sidelined with a knee injury, he isn't completely healthy this season either. He missed the entire fourth quarter Monday in the Lakers' 98-92 victory over the Magic because of flu-like symptoms, but the Lakers had six other players score in double figures as well as Odom and Gasol to grab double-digit rebounds.
Team balance also proved instrumental during Bynum's absence in last season's trip, with at least three players scoring in double digits in the remaining four games.
Against Memphis, the Lakers responded to a six-point halftime deficit with 36 third-quarter points. They shot 53.7%, forced 23 turnovers and had five players score in double figures.
"It was a difficult part of it," Jackson said of Bynum's injury. "But we made up for it and came back and played pretty well, even though that was a depressing event for us."
Kobe in the clutch
Beyond his obsessive competitiveness, Mamba had plenty of reasons to play well on Feb. 2, 2009 against the New York Knicks.
Director and longtime Knicks fan Spike Lee was putting together a documentary -- later released as "Kobe Doin Work" -- and the two were set to review the film following the Knicks game. "I didn't feel like sitting next to him," Bryant told reporters, "and hearing him talk trash about the Knicks."
Mamba also wanted to perform well, given Bynum's absence. And all Bryant did in a 126-117 victory over New York was set Madison Square Garden's record of 61 points, eclipsing the 60 points scored by the Knicks' Bernard King in 1984 and marking the fifth time Bryant dropped at least 60.
Although his scoring dipped the following games against Toronto (36), Boston (26 on 10-of-29 shooting) and Cleveland (19), Bryant's presence in those games was still significant.
He scored 10 fourth-quarter points against the Raptors, and his jumper with 6:27 remaining gave the Lakers a 87-85 edge, the first time they led since the second quarter.
Bryant's miss of a 22-foot turnaround shot over Boston's Paul Pierce with 9.9 seconds remaining meant the game would go to overtime. But he made three three-pointers late in the game, including one with 1:30 left to give the Lakers a 101-100 lead in the fourth quarter.
And then there was Bryant's performance against Cleveland that Lakers guard Derek Fisher said afterward showed the "ultimate form of leadership on his part." Mamba experienced flu-like symptoms before, during and after the game, causing him to miss a team meeting in the morning and needing IV fluids at halftime and once the contest ended.
Call it an example of his unyielding desire to compete or just plain stubbornness, Bryant is going through similar issues this season. Despite having a month-long avulsion fracture to his right index finger, he has refused to sit out. He has shot 36.8% in the last seven games, as his finger continues to get bumped and bruised through contact.
Whether it's good for the team or not, Jackson isn't forcing Bryant to sit. So that means his finger can prove to be the difference in this trip and can determine how quickly he becomes the 15th player to eclipse 25,000 career points (Bryant needs 19 more).
"If it's a close game, I believe I can come back," Bryant said, drawing laughs from reporters. "I really do."
Inside presence of Gasol and Odom
Gasol's stat line of 17 points and 11.2 rebounds doesn't exactly do justice to the impact he brings to the team. This stat line does, though: The Lakers are 21-3 with him this season and are 11-6 without him.
Particularly with Bynum's illness, the team has welcomed Gasol's return after missing six games with a left hamstring injury with open arms. And he hasn't wasted time in his return
Gasol complemented Bynum, with the two each posting 20 points Friday in a 126-86 victory over the Clippers. He followed up with a double-double (17 points, 10 boards) against the Magic, while also holding Orlando center Dwight Howard to one field goal in the second half after he scorched Bynum for 18 first-half points.
Meanwhile, Odom's offensive production has fluctuated, partly because of his acceptance to fulfill a utility role and partly because of his tendency to play tentatively. But he's uncompromising on the glass, grabbing at least 10 boards in seven of 10 games this month.
Gasol and Odom had a similar presence in last season's trip. Gasol averaged 24.8 points and 12 rebounds in last season's six-game stretch, including double-doubles in the last four games of the trip. Odom posted double digits in all six contests, and recorded season-highs of 28 points and 17 rebounds against Cleveland.
With Gasol having already gone through last season's grinding trip, he didn't express worry over this upcoming one.
Said Gasol: "This team has the depth and experience to be successful with back-to-backs."
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: The Lakers' Lamar Odom has a pretty good grip on Cleveland's Anderson Varejao during their Christmas Day game at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.
Second photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant slips past Orlando forward Matt Barnes along the baseline during a drive in the first quarter Monday night. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.
Third photo: Orlando's Ryan Anderson tries, and fails, to stop a dunk by Lakers center Andrew Bynum in the second quarter Monday night. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.
Bottom photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol drives past Orlando's Rashard Lewis for a layup in the first quarter Monday night. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.