Lakers believe upcoming schedule will reveal more of their identity
To alleviate what amounts to about a six-month regular season, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson likes to break up the schedule into one-week spans.
It makes the season seem shorter. It helps the coaching staff and players organize their preparation. And it provides another carrot of motivation, however small it may be, for a veteran and championship team that finds little excitement in the regular season.
In a weeklong stretch that Jackson describes as "a lot of games," the Lakers' (25-11) immediate stops include two playoff-bound opponents in New Orleans (21-15) on Friday and New York (20-14) on Sunday at Staples Center, a back-to-back pair of sub-.500 teams in Cleveland (8-27) and Golden State (14-21) on Tuesday and Wednesday and another home contest Friday against New Jersey (10-25), the only intrigue in that game centering on Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar playing against their former team. Aside from the games against the Hornets and Knicks, this stretch of the Lakers' schedule doesn't spark the same excitement as some other games this month, including possible Western Conference playoff opponents in Oklahoma City (23-13), Dallas (26-8), Denver (20-14), Utah (24-12) and Eastern Conference leader and arch-rival Boston (27-7). But that's one reason why these less exciting games are important.
"Hopefully you learn from games you play," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said.
The Lakers spent their time doing just that in a week that's featured plenty of episodes that could rival Odom's upcoming reality television show with his wife, Khloe Kardashian. The team dealt with four double-digit losses, debate about the role Kobe Bryant and the Lakers' front line play in maintaining a balanced offense, a report that Pau Gasol missed a morning shootaround, a report that Ron Artest expressed frustration at a recent practice to Jackson regarding his public criticism, and a back-and-forth between Jackson and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who called Jackson Jeanie Buss' "boy toy." But the Lakers' responded to those subplots with a two-game winning streak in back-to-back games against Detroit and Phoenix.
But what to make of the wins themselves? Well, not much.
"We won the games but you can't make a mountain out of a molehill," Jackson said. "It's good to win the game, but there's a lot of movement as far as coming back to the way we have to play."
That's why Jackson compartmentalized these next five games as critical, not because of the opponents, but because there are issues the Lakers want to work on before any progress becomes fleeting. The Lakers' games against Detroit and Phoenix featured stronger efforts, but in the latter game the Suns stayed in striking distance until the final minutes.
Jackson likes how the Lakers have increased their deflections and steals by installing new wrinkles in their defense, but he's still looking for consistency in shutting off opponents' pick-and-rolls by playing the personnel up front.
There's more. Lakers center Andrew Bynum continually showed improvement in conditioning, jumping and aggressiveness, but his two-for-seven mark from the free-throw line shows Jackson that he's "out of rhythm," a reason why Bynum spent part of Thursday's practice shooting from the charity stripe. The Lakers displayed great ball movement, but Pau Gasol appeared sluggish against Phoenix, scoring six points on three-of-10 shooting and drawing a technical foul.
Jackson argued that Gasol's technical wasn't warranted, but said he won't ask the league to rescind the call because the game telecast apparently didn't show it. "A great network like ESPN didn't even have it on tape so we could see what actually transpired," Jackson deadpanned. Still, the Lakers' 12 technical fouls displeases Jackson and partly reflects the team's frustration.
That certainly has softened with the Lakers' return to winning. So even if two victories against sub-.500 teams mean very little, it's at least a start.
Said Odom: "In sports, I would say it's better to win than to lose."
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