Lakers' Ron Artest and Phil Jackson seeking consistency throughout rest of the season
It's been a "roller coaster ride so far," said Lakers forward Ron Artest, summing up the Lakers season. At one point, the acceleration became too much to handle.
Artest wasn't speaking specifically about his own situation, instead lumping his arrival in the offseason into "all the excitement that was around this season," with the Lakers having a strong chance to repeat their 2009 championship run.
Artest certainly fed into it, introducing himself at his introductory news conference, where he talked about things including TMZ, his idol Michael Jackson, the infamous Brawl at the Palace and, of course, joining the Lakers.
The excitement continued as the Lakers coasted through the early part of the season. They didn't suffer double-digit losses until late January, and it initially appeared the road to repeat would be as easy as taking a victory lap.
But then the reality of the 82-game season set in, the point where team success often is based on knowing how to pace through the grind rather than on winning on talent. That, of course, becomes a bigger factor when complacency kicks into gear, an attitude Artest says he felt he partially contributed to.
"It was easy. That’s how it was early. We kept saying it. I kept saying that," Artest said after practice Sunday in El Segundo. "Instead of saying we got to get better and saying we have a tough game ahead of us, we kept reflecting on the last game. That was too easy. Now we’re playing like we’re being hunted instead of playing like we’re being on top."
The standings certainly reflect that. The Lakers (48-18) lead the Western Conference by a narrow margin, holding only a three-game lead over Denver (45-21), a three-and-a-half game edge over Dallas (45-22) and six-game cushion over Utah (42-24). And that race with Cleveland for the best record? The Cavaliers (52-15) are pretty comfortable with that, making it probably the only time in history the Lakers rooted for the Boston in its game Sunday against the Cavaliers. But it was to no avail. Cleveland beat the Celtics, 104-93, and Boston has been left justifying its season by reading a column from Times columnist Bill Plaschke that criticizes the Lakers' lack of urgency. It left them thinking, at least it's not just us who are playing poorly.
And as far as the Lakers being in a tight race for playoff seedings? Artest acknowledged the reality that the Lakers could' have avoided that scenario.
"At the beginning of the season, nobody had a chance and then we gave everybody a chance," he said. "So now it’s like, 'OK, let’s go back and play the right way.' We’ll do that and we’ll be OK now. I think we’ll be OK. That last game got us moving in the right direction."
The Lakers hope that continues Monday against Golden State (18-47) after winning the last two games against Toronto and Phoenix. With 16 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers are measuring wins beyond what it means in the standings race. They're also measuring how each game helps sharpen their development for the playoffs. Case in point, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant lauded the team's effort last week in a loss to Orlando, criticized the team's defense after bailing out the Lakers with his sixth game- winner Tuesday against Toronto and then credited the team's effort again against Phoenix.
By no means was the Lakers' victory against the Suns perfect. But the Lakers think that signature road victory at least laid the foundation. Artest is putting the goal at an undefeated streak the rest of the way. Center Andrew Bynum thinks the Lakers need to reach 60 victories. This may be lofty thinking, perhaps, but it isn't such an absurd concept when you consider Dallas went on 13-game winning streak before losing Saturday to New York. Also, Cleveland has gone 9-1 in the last 10 games and has clinched a playoff berth. And other playoff contenders in Orlando and Denver have gone 8-2 in the last 10 contests.
Then look at the remaining schedule and see how many of the contenders' remaining games are against playoff opponents: the Lakers, eight of 16; Cleveland, seven of 15; Dallas, six of 15; Denver, nine of 16 and Utah, six of 16. With the strength of schedule relatively even, games such as the Lakers' next four games against Golden State, Sacramento, Minnesota and Washington shouldn't just be gimme victories, they should be momentum builders.
It's exactly the hope Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has for his club, and we'll find out as soon as Monday night how it's executed.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Ron Artest puts on the brakes as Suns forward-center Louis Amundson cuts off his drive in the second half Friday night. Credit: Matt York / Associated Press