Lakers' 100-88 victory over New Jersey Nets concludes easier portion of schedule
The Lakers left the court at Staples Center, Coach Phil Jackson entered the press-conference room and players either stood or sat by their lockers with the same stoic demeanors.
Their 100-88 victory Friday over the New Jersey Nets marked the team's seventh consecutive victory, the team's highest mark since its 8-0 start. Yet. the emotionless reactions afterward both reflected the Lakers' (30-11) inconsistency within that streak and the uncertainty regarding the team's current state of being as it enters the heart of its schedule. That includes matchups with possible Western Conference playoff opponents in Oklahoma City (Monday), Dallas (Wednesday), Denver (Friday) and Utah (Jan. 25). It features an archrival and possible NBA Finals opponent in the Boston Celtics (Jan. 30). And rarely is this sentence ever written, but also throw in the Lakers' Sunday matchup with the Clippers, whose 13-25 record is deceiving considering they have won eight of their last 13 games, compiled signature victories against the Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat and created a buzz through improved play, youthful energy and of course, plenty of Blake Griffin highlight reels.
"You can't run away from playing good teams, just like you can't run away from playing bad teams," said Lakers forward Lamar Odom, who scored 10 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. "You have to play an 82 game season."
But the Lakers' effort against New Jersey truly signified the mixed picture in their seven-game winning streak. Jackson argued Kobe Bryant's 27 points on 10 of 19 shooting and four assists signified progression in both his relentless scoring mentality and ability to direct the offense. He noted Ron Artest's 14 points on five of seven shooting continued a three-game stretch where he's shot above 50%, and a rate he's capable of fulfilling during Matt Barnes' expected eight-week absence because of surgery on his lateral meniscus tear on his right knee. And Gasol ticked off several areas that's become a common thread during the seven-game winning streak. The team's improvement on the new defensive scheme that forces opponents to drive baseline, requires the backcourt to shut off the perimeter tightly and for the frontcourt to remain close to the basket. The team's ball movement. And a stronger effort.
But it's games like the Lakers' one against New Jersey that make it hard to truly read. Jackson's contention that "it took us a while to get ourselves in sync tonight" pointed to plenty of areas. Lakers center Andrew Bynum's two first-quarter fouls prompted him to play less aggressive and finish with only two points on one of five shooting ("He just never got in rhythm out there" - Jackson said about Bynum). Pau Gasol's 20 points on six of 16 shooting because he said he "couldn't get enough of a base," and was elbowed in the left eye. And the Lakers had no answer for New Jersey center Brook Lopez, whose 35 points on 13 of 19 shooting came on uncontested drives to the basket and contributed to the Nets outrebounding the Lakers 45-38. ("That center is pretty good. That was unexpcted. I dont know how many centers are as good as that in the NBA.")
And it appeared the Lakers only true emotions came with Bryant and Fisher presented former Lakers Jordan Farmar with his championship ring, several teammates hugged former Laker Sasha Vujacic in his first arrival at Staples Center since being traded a month ago for Joe Smith and when Odom picked up a technical foul with 1:06 left in the fourth quarter ("It was a disagreement," Odom said. "They were fouling me on purpose I was a little upset and they don't call it and a guy could get stitches. I was just like, Call a foul").
Bryant captured the Lakers' dichotomy pretty well in nearly contradicting assessments.
"We're playing with the right mindset," Bryant said. "We're playing by thinking about the defensive end of the floor. We're playing with the right energy. "We're getting there, but there's still areas. Tonight we blew so many coverages defensively.
At least the Lakers are a much different team when they last played the Clippers, an 87-86 victory Dec. 8 that required a Derek Fisher buzzer beater that prompted a team meeting about the team's lackluster play. They're much different since that Christmas Day loss to Miami, where Bryant took his turn in ripping apart the team's effort, only to see it continue in double-digit losses to San Antonio and Memphis. And the Lakers sharp defense against New York, record-setting effort against Cleveland and Bryant's highlight reel against Golden State provide much preferred storylines than Artest's confrontation with Jackson over him publicly criticizing him, Gasol's late arrival to a morning shootaround and continuous dissecting of poor play.
With the Lakers mostly nondescript schedule coming to a close however, they acknowledge these games will truly reveal whether the improved albeit inconsistent habits have provided enough of a foundation.
"We know some games will be harder than others," Gasol said. "But if we put our minds 100% in it, we know we have a good chance to win."
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has his shot challenged by Nets guard Jordan Farmar in the first half Friday night. Credit: Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press