There was a welcome break for some of the Lakers, a full weekend for several others, and a trip down memory lane with Shaquille O’Neal thrust upon everyone who was in Phoenix for the All Star game or paying attention to the events out of that city over the weekend.
Ready and rested or not, the rest of the season lay in front of the Lakers Monday afternoon as they reconvened for their first practice after the All Star break with the NBA’s best record (42-10) and 30 games standing between them and the playoffs.
Though they cruised to victories over Cleveland and Boston, their two main challengers for the league’s best record, on their recently completed road trip, the road ahead will not be easy.
Seventeen of the Lakers final 30 games will be played away from home, including another monster trip. This time they’ll make a seven-game excursion through the Midwest at the end of March.
“It’s going to get tough, and we’re going to have to push because teams are gunning for us,” said forward Lamar Odom. “There’s going to be a target on our back, so we expect for games to be really hard and competitive.
“But I feel rejuvenated. I had a nice break. It was fun coming back today, seeing my brothers and getting back to work.”
Odom though, actually had a few days off.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were in Phoenix to play in the All Star game, coach Phil Jackson was there to coach the Western Conference, Derek Fisher competed in the Shooting Stars competition and Trevor Ariza and Jordan Farmar were there as the Lakers union reps.
“It wasn’t much of a break,” Gasol said. “But I did have the opportunity to catch up on some rest and to see my family. They keep you pretty busy, there’s a lot of attention, but it’s an honor to be an All Star and I had a great time.”
Both Gasol and Bryant said they felt fine physically, but admitted the road-heavy schedule ahead would be difficult.
“We’ll see how well we react to our schedule,” Gasol said. “It’s going to be hard, but at the same time, the more games we play, the closer we get to where we want to be and that’s the exciting part.”
First up, just like last season coincidently, are the Atlanta Hawks (31-21), who come to to Staples Center relatively healthy for the first time this season. Reserve guard Flip Murray (family emergency) is the only regular rotation player expected to miss the game.
After that, it’s up to Golden State on Wednesday night and back home for a Friday night game with the New Orleans Hornets.
In all, the Lakers will play 30 games in the final 57 games of the regular season, which concludes April 14 with a home game against the Utah Jazz.
The packed schedule means that Jackson will have to constantly weight the benefits of playing for the league’s best record — and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs — with the risk of taxing his star players.
Asked whether it was worth it to extend the minutes of starters like Bryant, Gasol and Odom to pursue home court advantage, Jackson was pretty unequivocal.
“No. It’s not,” he said. “Because who knows if you’ll ever get there to the Finals. You’ve got to be able to have a real healthy team coming down the stretch. Getting there is the important part.”
Bryant, who sat out most of Monday’s workout, seemed to be on the same page.
“We obviously have to get healthy and get Andrew (Bynum) back,” he said. “Then we’ll be clicking on all cylinders.
“But as of now we’re playing well. I’m pleased with where we are. We’ve got areas we need to improve in, and we’ll get better in those. But I’m pleased with where we are.”