Things the Lakers need to get out of their seven-game trip
"Win a couple games" -- Lakers guard Kobe Bryant
That's the most obvious thing the Lakers need to do when they begin a seven-game trip Saturday with stops at New Orleans, Memphis, Boston, New York, Orlando, Charlotte and Cleveland. The Lakers (34-16) sit behind the San Antonio Spurs (42-8) by eight games and are a 1/2 game behind the Dallas Mavericks (34-15). Even if the Lakers insist that standings races don't matter until March, the Spurs' big margin shows the Lakers must think otherwise.
The Times' Mike Bresnahan makes a pretty compelling case on why it's mathematically going to be very hard for the Lakers to catch up with the Spurs: "Even if the Spurs won at only a 60% clip the rest of the way, the Lakers would have to play almost .900 ball to finish ahead of them." But that shouldn't give the Lakers an excuse to change their goal to securing second place in the Western Conference. The minute the Lakers' standards drop for the regular season, it is a red flag that they're giving in to their season-wide inconsistency.
"We had a horrible home stand here so going out on the road might do us a little bit of good," Bryant said, referring to the Lakers' road record (15-8) proving better than their play at Staples Center (19-8).
Prepare better for sub-.500 teams
It's tempting to immediately focus in on the tough opponents the Lakers will face, including the Celtics (37-12), Knicks (32-19) and Magic (32-19); a fair point considering the Lakers' 1-7 mark against teams that have a better record than them. But it's troubling Coach Phil Jackson more that the Lakers have lost several games to sub.-500 opponents, including Sacramento, Indiana, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Houston and Memphis.
It's not just that the Lakers lost to those teams, but the way they lost to them that's most troubling. Five of those six were double-digit losees, the loss to Indiana featuring Roy Hibbert exploiting the Lakers' flimsy interior defense and the Suns draining a franchise-record 22 three-pointers. That's why certain stops won't yield automatic victories, including games against the Grizzlies and Bobcats, which have beaten the Lakers in four of their last five matchups.
"New Orleans has players we're not familiar with," Jackson said. "That's what I think this team suffers from -- we look down on the list of games we lost in under .500 teams and it's about new personnel, young players, veteran players. We are not adjusting and paying attention and understanding the concepts and context of what they're playing against."
Improve execution against elite teams
Jackson's main argument for the Lakers' taking games against sub. 500 opponents seriously is that they won't be guaranteed they'll match up with elite teams, no matter how well they execute. The Lakers' 89-88 loss Thursday to the San Antonio Spurs perfectly illustrates that concept, with the team playing well with the right energy and effort only to fall flat because of a lapse in the final 22.7 seconds that involved giving up three consecutive offensive rebounds and Lamar Odom failing to box out Antonio McDyess on the game-winning putback.
But there are more troubling statistics that show how the Lakers don't fare well against elite teams. They shot 40.5% against San Antonio, featured a Bryant-heavy offense against Boston because of his teammates' lack of aggression, another Bryant-heavy offense in the first loss to the Spurs because of his trigger-happy tendencies, and little energy against Miami.
"It's going to be tough on the road," said Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who also added the Lakers must "win the majority of the games on this trip." "We have to execute. That's the only thing that's really missing. We're not running sets together we do in practice everyday. We're not doing it. We're not executing."
Bynum's knee must get healthier
All things considered, Bynum said he "felt good" against San Antonio after missing the game Tuesday against Houston because of a bone bruise in his left knee. Jackson suggested, however, that Bynum's timing remains a work in progress and the Lakers weren't effective enough in setting him up in what became a 10-point effort on four of seven shooting in 29 minutes. Aside from Bynum's presence proving largely instrumental in the Lakers' revamped defensive scheme, he'll be sorely needed in games, particularly against New York and Orlando. In the Lakers' 107-83 victory Jan. 10 against the Knicks, Bynum absolutely overwhelmed Amare Stoudemire both on offense and defense. And against the Magic, Bynum's presence will be needed to match Dwight Howard's size and give Bynum a litmus test on where he stands among the league's elite.
Photo: San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, right, gets an arm in the face as he tries to guard Lakers forward Ron Artest during the first half of the Lakers' 89-88 loss Thursday at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times