Lakers facing different circumstances than at the end of last season
Taped on the marker board in the Lakers' locker room are the NBA standings. On the TV in the same room there's usually another NBA game that players gaze at in between interviews, treatments and pregame shooting routines. They serve as the perfect illustration for what's made this team so much different compared to last season's.
The Lakers (53-20) have gone 15-1 since the All-Star break, remain only four games behind the San Antonio Spurs and enter Thursday's game against the Dallas Mavericks with a one-game lead for the second spot. At this point last season, the Lakers battled month-long inconsistencies, worrying more about maintaining health than improving their play, considering they had longly secured the top spot in the Western Conference.
"There wasn't really any pressure as far as our conference," Lakers forward Pau Gasol acknowledged. "It was more about Cleveland and the other side. It was different. Kobe [Bryant] was also banged up and couldn't finish some of those games. It was out of the normal scenario. This year there is pressure on the standings and there's a team right behind us and a team we're trying to catch in front of us. We have to react."
Both Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher remain skeptical in feeding that storyline. Fisher said the Lakers follow the NBA standings simply because it's in their inclination to do so both as competitors wanting to sharpen their preparation and as fans hoping to satisfy their hoops fix. Fisher, after all, walked right past the television screen showing Memphis' upset Sunday over San Antonio with very little reaction. Meanwhile, Bryant argued the team's fixation should stay on remaining sharp instead of becoming consumed with other teams' results. Bryant, after all, maintained the same even-keeled demeanor after the the Lakers' 102-84 victory Sunday over New Orleans as he did when the Lakers lost three consecutive games, including one to Cleveland, before the All-Star break. But Lakers Coach Phil Jackson is mindful that the standings race helped spur an urgency that may not have been there if the Lakers could've afforded coasting.
"It's about having to get the season going," said Jackson, who increased practice times this season when he thought the Lakers dropped too far in the standings. "It's about the way we got it going or else we're just going to labor along in third, fourth place. The idea is to get to second place and find a way to hold onto it so we can have the best seeding we can have in the playoffs. We thought the Spurs had too big of a lead at that particular time. They may have too big a lead and it looks far-fetched. But still we have to play for it. That's what we play for and that's what you do with this game is keep pushing the envelope and see how far you can get."
There's no doubt the Lakers are trying to embrace the pressure in keeping up with the Western Conference contenders, let alone the Eastern Conference. The Lakers have pulled even with Chicago for the NBA's second-best record, something that could give the Lakers home-court advantage in three consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
"There's a lot of motivation," guard Shannon Brown said. "We know their situation. We know they're trying to get home court. They've been playing well all year. If we can catch them and get home court, that'll be the best thing."
But they're by no means breaking down all the possible scenarios that have to work out in their favor. After all, the following scenarios can be rather confusing. The Spurs have eight games left, including seven against teams with winning records and one of them being the Lakers at Staples Center on April 12. The Spurs also enter Tuesday night's game against Portland with a three-game losing streak and won't have the services of both Tim Duncan (sprained ankle), Tony Parker (bruised knee) and Manu Ginobili (bruised thigh). The Orange County Register's Kevin Ding explains in great detail why the Lakers would likely hold the tiebreaker over Dallas, even if it took the regular-season series lead, pointing out the Lakers' securing the Pacific Division still gives them a strategic advantage. The Mavericks' nine remaining games only feature three playoff teams, including their game with the Lakers. Meanwhile, the Lakers' matchup Thursday with Dallas concludes the final contest of a seven-game homestand, Five of their remaining games feature playoff opponents and two include games against the Utah Jazz, a team on the playoff fringes that always gives the Lakers a fight.
The Lakers are playing at their best thanks to various tactical changes as well.
The Lakers post All-Star play has featured Andrew Bynum playing a large role in the team's limiting teams to under 100 points in 13 of 16 games, Ron Artest is improving compared to his season-average in both points and field-goal percentage, Bryant scoring at least 30 points in the past three games and the team appearing more interested.
"We're playing much better basketball right now at this stage than we were last year, obviously," Bryant said.
That's because last season presented a much different story. The Lakers were 5-6 in their last 11 games, 17-11 since the All-Star break and compiled only a 22-18 record against playoff teams. They went 7-6 without Bynum (strained left Achilles' tendon), while Bryant missed four of the last five games to rest assorted injuries, including his fractured right index finger, sore right knee and sprained left ankle. There was also Bryant's 21 of 70 clip in the last three games before sitting out the final two, Artest remaining an offensive liability and the bench remaining a liability, period.
"We're healthier this year," Artest said. "Kobe was really struggling last year, but he did what he had to do. This year he's going to have a great playoffs."
The Lakers' 15-1 mark since the All-Star break perfectly coincides with how the Lakers' finished in the last month in four of their past five title runs in the last decade, including the 1999-2000 team (20-4), 2000-2001 team (18-7), 2001-2002 team (18-7) and the 2008-2009 team (17-5). It also could establish a nearly identical path to the Lakers closing out the 2000-2001 season with an eight-game winning streak. Even if Artest argues this current stretch "gives us a good sense of how we're going to be" because "everybody is playing hard," the Lakers have made very little of their recent success.
"We feel good about the way we're playing, but there's not a sense of accomplishment for winning a lot of regular season games at this point," Fisher said. "We obviously love winning more than losing, but I don't think we're patting ourselves on the back necessarily for having a good stretch right now. However we finish this season, it's for naught if we don't go into the postseason we need to go into it and win a title."
That's because last season's 6-7 mark in the last 13 games of the 2009-10 season bore very little resemblance to how everything turned out in the postseason. This wasn't a case of the Lakers flipping on the switch. Oklahoma City woke them up in a competitive first-round series. Bryant's knee drain helped him become more dominant. Bynum's knee drain helped him at least remain on the court. And Gasol, Fisher and Artest all produced timely contributions.
NBA.com's John Schuhmann also explains in great detail that post-All Star break success can mean very little. He mentions that the team with the better post All-Star break record won just eight of the 15 playoff series in 2010. That's why the Lakers would prefer dwelling on the various nuances, such as improving the bench's consistency, lamenting blown leads and ensuring everyone else maintains their high output. Thankfully they have the standings race to help push the Lakers along, even if they don't want it to define their season.
"We're not worried about skipping steps," Bryant said. "We're worried about our execution. That's all we did then and that's all we'll do now."
-- Mark Medina
Top photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has his shot challenged by New Orleans center Emeka Okafor in the game Sunday night at Staples Center. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has his driving layup challenged by Hornets center Emeka Okafor in the first half Sunday evening at Staples Center. Credit: Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press