Can the Lakers catch up to Dallas or San Antonio in the Western Conference standings?
For a while, the Lakers looked up at the Western Conference standings, noticed they weren't at the top and proclaimed it wasn't a big deal.
The Lakers have longly touted the benefits of having home-court advantage knowing they haven't won a series the past three seasons without it. But with the San Antonio Spurs having a large stakehold in the West this season, the defending champions maintained two arguments on why it wasn't much of a concern. They remained convinced it was too early in the season to get caught up in standings races. They also argued home-court advantage can be a deceiving luxury considering it's likely necessary securing road wins would be needed anyway.
Forget the Lakers' pre-season proclamation that they needed to finish the top of the West, aware that losing home-court advantage would only exacerbate challenges, ranging from fatigue, age, injuries and the never-ending pressure in defending back-to-back titles. It's more important, they argue, that they stay healthy and peak in their play just as the playoffs begin.
The Lakers, however, at least conceded the standings race begins to matter in March, meaning their outlook on their place behind San Antonio and Dallas changes a little bit. The Spurs (50-11) hold a 7 1/2 game lead over the Lakers (43-19), but that's not the only team leading the defending champions. The Dallas Mavericks (44-16) own a two-game advantage over the Lakers after reeling a seven-game winning streak. That's why it's a no brainer the Lakers view their four-game trip as more important than others, considering it begins Sunday with San Antonio, ends Saturday with Dallas and also features a game Thursday against Miami, whom the Lakers remember very well brought their talents from South Beach to Staples Center on Christmas Day and made it appear the hype was justified after all.
"This trip is really like a make or break point of the season for us," Jackson said. "If we play really well on this road trip, we have a chance to do things. If we don't, we'll have to settle in and assume we're fighting either for second or third place, hopefully."
Surely, the Lakers performance on this trip affects whether the Lakers manage to close the gap in the Western Conference standings or allow the Spurs and/or Mavericks simply to widen the cushion. Whether the Lakers will be able to catch up to either of them entirely once the regular season ends remains another issue. So far, a few things have worked in the Lakers' favor. The Lakers have gone 6-0 since the All-Star break. They've exhibited defensive consistency, holding teams to 87.6 points per game since the All-Star break. And Lakers center Andrew Bynum has averaged 10.66 rebounds and three blocks during that stretch, an effort that Jackson argues speaks to him "being more live and that his activity level is higher" in addition of course to his size and length. Add all those ingredients together and the Lakers in the eyes that Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki argues are still "the team to beat.", perhaps aware that the Dallas' regular-season success has still resulted in first round exits in three of the past four seasons.
But that won't completely propel the Lakers from jumping from the third seed to the top spot in the Western Conference. The Lakers being the Lakers have shown a pattern of inconsistent performances all season. It was after all only two weeks ago that the Lakers ended a 4-0 start on a seven-game trip featuring a signature win over Boston with a three-game losing streak, including double-digit losses to the Charlotte Bobcats and the Cleveland Cavaliers. There's also the case of San Antonio and Dallas maintaining pace as well. The Spurs recently suggested guard Tony Parker would miss between two to four weeks because of a strained left calf, but he started in San Antonio's 125-95 victory Friday over Miami after sitting out only two games. Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks have won seven consecutive games and have shown little sign of slowing down. As Dallas guard Jason Terry said about the Lakers, "We’re not even worried about them. They’re behind us. We got our sights set straight ahead."
The Lakers, meanwhile, insist they can't worry about what they can't control.
"We can't be thinking about the other guys," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. "As long as we do well and we win and we are focused and giving ourselves a good chance every night, we'll have a chance to pass a team or two. If not, it doesn't matter what they do. We have to worry about what's in our hands and in front of us."
"I think it's more important to playing well because they can win out," Lakers forward Lamar Odom added. You can't catch them. Just playing well is the most important and playing to our ability and how we want to play basketball. You can't worry about other teams and saying, 'I hope they lose games so we can move up.' You want to win games just in case we meet them anywhere to play basketball that we'll be ready."
That hasn't stopped Jackson from watching how San Antonio and Dallas fare in the standings, however. It also hasn't stopped him from monitoring Boston (45-18), Chicago (42-18) and Miami (43-19) considering a Finals matchup could have home-court implications as well. And then there's Odom's admission that he places more stock in their games against Dallas and San Antonio because they would likely have to go through them first in the Western Conference.
The significance of the Lakers' upcoming trip can't be overstated enough because of those big-picture implications. Even if they can't really control how San Antonio and Dallas finish out, though the Lakers surely need to win their head-to-head matchups with the Spurs (Sunday, April 12) and the Mavericks (March 12, March 31). Also, the Lakers' schedule becomes somewhat easier afterwards. Though the Lakers' 19 remaining games feature 12 playoffs opponents, 11 of those contests occur in Staples Center, including seven consecutive home games after the Lakers' four-game trip.
Whether or not that will be enough for the Lakers to catch up in the standings remain to be seen.The Lakers have also debated back and forth if this standings chase even matters. Regardless of where they stand, they're well aware of the challenging task they face in keeping up with San Antonio and Dallas.
"We really want to win these games," Bynum said. "Not just for the standings, but to send a message and let everybody know we're here and we're serious."
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Photo: San Antonio forward Antonio McDyess, right, gets past Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and scores the winning basket on a tip-in at the buzzer, lifting the Spurs to an 89-88 victory over the Lakers on Feb. 3 at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, takes a shot as Dallas center Tyson Chandler tries to stop him during the Lakers' 109-100 loss Jan. 19. Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.