Lakers can end five-game trip on high note with victory over Atlanta
Signs that the Lakers have their mind on the postseason became visible in different ways. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant acknowledged he has paid closer attention to the standings. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson challenged his team prior to its current five-game trip to go 5-0, and not 4-1, "because that’s not what champions look for going out on the road." And he also raised the ante by proclaiming his team can reach win 60 regular-season games, another dangling carrot to keep the Lakers interested.
The Lakers 2-2 mark and the scant practices in between clearly show they just want the postseason to begin. Jackson didn't consider the trip would "make-or-break" the Lakers (54-20), considering they have comfortable leads over Dallas (49-25), Utah (49-25) and Phoenix (48-26) for the top spot in the West with eight games remaining. But a loss tonight in Atlanta (47-26) surely wouldn't assuage any concerns about the Lakers' postseason.
Who: Atlanta Hawks (47-26)
Where: Atlanta, Philips Arena
When: Wednesday 4 p.m. PDT (KCAL-9)
Record vs. Hawks this season: 1-0
Matchup history: The Lakers rebounded quite nicely from a home loss to Dallas with a convincing 118-110 victory Nov. 2 over Atlanta. It's a good thing they did that because Jackson was so disgusted with the Lakers' 14 point loss to the Mavericks that he said fans should've been refunded their money. The fans instead were refunded with vintage performances from Kobe Bryant (41 points), Andrew Bynum (21 points) and Lamar Odom (11 points, 14 rebounds eight assists). Lakers forward Ron Artest had his first defensive standout performance, holding Hawks guard Joe Johnson to one of eight shooting in the final three quarters after he scorched the Lakers in the first quarter with 18 points. Although Jackson didn't like the Lakers held only a 74-70 lead through part of the third quarter, the Lakers easily put the game away by scoring 18 unanswered points, 12 of them coming in transition.
Outlook: Johnson isn't the only one that's been limited against the Lakers. Though Atlanta's frontcourt of Al Horford and Josh Smith average together 30.1 points and 18.5 rebounds, they have been to a combined 14.3 points and 12.5 boards per game in their last four meetings with the Lakers. Whether or not that type of performance depends on whether the Lakers break away from their inconsistent habits during this trip. The Lakers' opportunity to close their trip on a somewhat respectable note comes against an opponent jockeying for playoff position. The Hawks are tied with the Boston Celtics (47-26) for the third spot in the East and trail the Orlando Magic (52-22) for second place. Although the Hawks wonder which team the fans will be cheering for tonight, Atlanta has a 30-7 home record, while the Lakers are 22-15 on the road and 9-5 against Eastern Conference opponents. A Hawks win would mark the first time they've won nine consecutive home games since a 20-game streak between Nov. 12, 1996 - Feb. 12, 1997, and would highlight the Lakers' third consecutive loss at Philips Arena. The Hawks lead the league in fewest turnovers (12), while the Lakers have had a share poor ball handling nights this month, including a season-high 24 against Golden State, 20 against Charlotte and 18 against Oklahoma City.
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Photo: Bryant drives against Atlanta's Joe Johnson. Johnson's 28 points, including four free throws in the final 23 seconds was the key in the Hawks' 98-95-win. Credit: EPA.