Lakers taking optimistic approach regarding current struggles
The coach couldn't help but let out a wide smile and sigh amusingly.
It took eight questions in a three-minute, 30-second span for Phil Jackson to know that the team's recent inconsistencies, capped by a double-digit loss Sunday to Boston, would invite scrutiny over the state of the team. "I think I better go," Jackson said, laughing. "I guess this will be one of those days."
It sure was. The day featured further analysis on the mechanics between Kobe Bryant's 41-point performance and the front line's passivity, reminders that the team's 18-7 home record already matches last season's mark in losses (34-7) and zero questions about the Lakers' game Tuesday against Houston (22-27) at Staples Center. In turn, the Lakers (33-15) have relied on Jackson's shared optimism that the team's two consecutive NBA championships prove that they know how to navigate these troubled waters through a string of inconsistent performances.
"We have guys who are experienced and we know what to do," Jackson said in amused condescension when I asked him what's helped him maintain the upbeat view that the Lakers will prove more effective in the playoffs when they haven't shown a consistent pattern thus far.
Fair enough. Jackson's 11 championship rings certainly give him a big-picture perspective on knowing when to worry about the team's state of being and when to brush it off. On the surface, Jackson took the latter approach, expressing amusement over the large media contingent following a two-game losing streak, joking that the Lakers were planning to commit "mass suicide" and saying tongue-in-cheek that he doesn't need the Lakers to improve until "April 15 or 17," a direct reference to the playoffs.
The Lakers have plenty of time to correct their problems, but there are so many to address. The Lakers trail the San Antonio Spurs (40-7) by 7½ games, Boston (36-11) by four and Miami (34-14) by one, three opponents that would hold home-court advantage if they were to meet in the playoffs, an advantage that proved helpful to the Lakers in securing Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals.
Jackson acknowledged that the team's inconsistent offense has left him worried, and that the Lakers' losses to sub-.500 opponents such as Milwaukee, Memphis, Indiana, the Clippers and Sacramento trouble him more than the 1-4 mark against teams higher than the Lakers in the standings. Also, there's the fact that the team has continually had to address problems with defensive concepts even after the players thought they had solved those problems.
So how do these struggles compare to other seasons?
"This season has been a little bit more inconsistent than we would've liked," said forward Pau Gasol, whose five-of-13 clip against Boston has illustrated his season-wide inconsistency. "We haven't had a lot of tough games and we lost a lot of games we shouldn't, more than usual. Then again, there's a long ways to go."
Even though Jackson refused to compare the Lakers' struggles compared to his 11 other championship teams, including six in Chicago and five with the Lakers, there are a few areas that show how L.A.'s current problems appear more egregious than the usual lapses that happen to any team even with the Lakers losing 6-7 in their last 13 games entering the postseason. The Lakers have already equaled their loss total from the 1999-2000 season (67-15), are only two losses away from matching L.A.'s 65-17 finish in the 2008-09 season and are four games behind the Lakers' 37-11 start through 48 games in the 2009-10 season. The team has also have suffered two four-game losing streaks this season, a feat that hadn't happened since since 2007 and a stretch that never happened during the Lakers' three-peat from 1999-2002. That point certainly wasn't lost on Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, who played for L.A. from 1999-2003.
"That raises a flag with me in terms of, you'd expect for them to come out and be mad," Shaw said in a recent interview with The TImes' Lakers blog. "You don't always see that with this team."
There surely will be many challenges ahead. Lakers center Andrew Bynum may miss tonight's game because of a bone bruise in his right knee. The team's current struggles prompted General Manager Mitch Kupchak to tell The Times' Broderick Turner and NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper that he's considering a trade. And the Lakers' matchup Thursday with San Antonio precedes a seven-game trip that includes meetings with Boston, New York and Orlando.
Certainly the stretch following the All-Star break presents more reasoning for the Lakers to sharpen their execution. But with the team lacking a definitive pattern, going 3-4 in its last seven games with periods of dominance (Utah, Denver, Oklahoma City) and periods of lapses (Clippers, Dallas, Sacramento and Boston), the Lakers have plenty of work to do. But Odom believes the concerns will die down as soon as the Lakers start winning again.
"The only time those games bother you is if you feel like because you lost to them during the regular season you can't beat them in the playoffs," Odom said. "You know when you watch a team lose to a team in the regular season, and you say, 'There's no way they can beat them in the playoffs.' I don't think we've gotten to that point yet. We're not that far. We just have to clean things up."
-- Mark Medina
Photo: Celtics forward Paul Pierce strips the ball from Lakers center Andrew Bynum on Sunday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times