December déjà vu for the Lakers: Remember that Christmas Day loss to Cleveland?
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant sat before a packed room of reporters following the team's 96-80 loss Christmas Day to the Miami Heat and insisted he was going to "kick some ... in practice" on Monday, ride his teammates and "beat it in their head until it gets through."
Moments earlier, Coach Phil Jackson had pleaded with the media and fanbase to "just be patient with us" as the Lakers (21-9) try to recover from a second consecutive loss, try to improve their 2-4 record against playoff opponents and try to catch up with San Antonio (26-4) and Dallas (23-5) in the Western Conference standings.
In between those press conferences, the Lakers echoed more conflicting sentiments In the locker room.Lakers guard Derek Fisher sounded optimistic, noting that the long NBA season made it possible to bounce back quickly from devastating losses. "That's a good and bad part about this business," he said. "You don't really have time or an opportunity to lick your wounds. You have to get prepared to play another really good team" -- in this case, the Lakers' game Tuesday against the San Antonio Spurs. But Lakers forward Lamar Odom seemed a little more circumspect, saying the team's cockiness since the beginning of training camp had not been a plus. "We'll learn from it," Odom said. "I hope so."
Are the Lakers playing good cop/bad cop, or is there a disconnect among the team's leaders? Well, that's another issue.
But hey, the Lakers have been in this position already. Remember that embarrassing Christmas Day loss last season to Cleveland? Fans threw foam fingers onto the court. Every Laker fan knows how the season ended: an NBA championship. But the Lakers would be misguided if they took the poor attitude that they didn't need to worry about their current problems. Last season, the Lakers responded to their Christmas Day loss with mixed performances, which shouldn't cause fans to conclude that this portion of the season is meaningless; rather, it shows that the team has to make changes to round into championship form.
Statistically speaking, the Lakers didn't have as many problems at this point last season, when the Christmas Day loss to the Cavs lowered their record to 23-5. But afterward they continued to stumble intermittently. Forward Ron Artest suffered a concussion later that night after falling down a flight of stairs, but the Lakers managed to absorb his absence the following day in a 112-103 overtime victory over the Sacramento Kings. Although the Lakers' victory over Sacramento showcased their ability to close out games -- capping off with a 9-0 run in overtime -- it also revealed some ongoing issues. The Kings stormed out to a nine-point first-quarter lead, outscored the Lakers' bench 28-23 and had seven first-quarter turnovers. Two days later, the Phoenix Suns in a 128-103 victory exposed the Lakers' offensive discontinuity (had 13 assists on 40 field goals), their flimsy perimeter and off-the-dribble defense (allowing a season high in points, including a 33-point third quarter) and an unreliable bench (getting outscored 52-31).
The Lakers immediately responded with wins over Golden State (124-118) and Sacramento (109-108), but that didn't totally erase unhealthy habits. The Lakers fell behind by 15 points in the second quarter to the Warriors and only prevailed after Ronny Turiaf missed two free-throw attempts with 1:22 to play with the Lakers leading, 118-115. The Lakers also trailed by 20 points in the second quarter to Sacramento, allowed the Kings to shoot 61.4% in the first half, and the reserves were outscored 28-11. It took a Bryant game winner, Ime Udoka to miss two free throws and injuries to Tyreke Evans (sprained right ankle) and Kevin Martin (fractured wrist) to come out victorious.
The Lakers appeared to have solved their problems with a dominating 131-96 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, who entered the game ranked second in the Western Conference. But that wasn't a statement about the Lakers' standing among the West's elite as it was a confirmation of their inconsistency, as indicated with losses to the Clippers and Portland later in the week.
That's why, for better and for worse, a Lakers win or loss to San Antonio on Tuesday won't suddenly erase or significantly expand their current problems. Case in point: Bryant's anger after the Miami's game pointed to the season's poor play, not just the Heat loss. A win would plant the seeds toward better habits, reaping improving team chemistry and minimizing dissension, a trickle effect that proves dividends after each sliver of progress. A loss contributes to a downward spiraling effect that proves more challenging to stop once it keeps going. The Lakers can't simply go from being complacent in December to wrapping up a championship in June. The reality is, the drive to a title will follow a long and winding road.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant forces Heat guard Dwyane Wade to lose control of his dribble during Saturday's game at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij/Staples Center.
Photo: Lakers forward Matt Barnes tries to score inside against Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas during Saturday's game at Staples Center. Credit: Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images.