What in the name of 16 NBA championships has happened to the Lakers?
After spending so many years looking at the crosstown Clippers as a punchline and an inevitable double-digit benchmark, the Lakers are suddenly admiring them.
“They’re good,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni gushed about the Clippers and their 17-game winning streak. “They’re real good and they’re having a great streak, so we’ll have to reckon with them and they’re kind of setting the bar of where we need to get to.”
That’s because the Clippers own the Western Conference’s best record at 25-6 and a one-game cushion over Oklahoma City (23-6). The Clippers’ 17-game winning streak eclipses the Lakers’ 15-15 record.
“It’s impressive to put together win streaks that are that long, it shows a lot of focus,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “It shows a lot of unity and a lot of depth because they can beat you multiple ways. If you’re going to have a winning streak that’s that extensive, you have to have guys coming in from all aspects of the game.”
Part of that success involves plenty of people with Lakers connections.
The Clippers feature the league’s best bench, which includes several former Lakers, including Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Ronny Turiaf and Caron Butler. The Clippers’ reserves remain top in the league in points per game (42), third in assists (11.3), efficiency (50.3) and minutes played per game (21.6). Jamal Crawford’s 16.5 points per game average off the bench has impressed Bryant so much that he argues he should win the NBA’s 6th man of the year.
“They have a lot of guys who have played together before,” Bryant said, referring to the former Lakers. “They’re very familiar with each other, so even if it seems like they slapped a lot of talent together, which they did, but a lot of those guys have been together before and they understand how to play together.”
That’s why the Lakers seemed more than willing to look ahead of their New Year’s Day game against the Philadelphia 76ers and talk about the upcoming matchup against the Clippers Friday in what will be a destinated road game for the Lakers at Staples Center. The Lakers have a chance to snap the Clippers’ winning streak, but Bryant downplayed that storyline.
“I really don’t give a [bleep],” he said.
D’Antoni, however, acknowledged caring already about the Western Conference standings
The Lakers sit in 10th place in the West and are a half game behind Portland (15-14) and Minnesota (14-13) for the eighth playoff spot. The Memphis Grizzlies (19-8) and Golden State Warriors (21-10) have 5 1/2 game leads for the respective fourth and fifth seeds. There’s 52 games remaining to find solid ground, but the Lakers already face the strong likelihood they won’t have home court advantage even in the first round of the postseason.
“I’m not worried about where we play,” D’Antoni said. “Obviously we’d like to and that’s our goal. We’ll see. We’ll have to have cooperation from other teams. So when it’s not in your hands, it’s not always a thing to worry about. What we have to worry about is play well. We’ll take some steps. The standings will take care of themselves. Obviously we’ll look, do look and act like I’m not worried about it. Yeah, I’m worried about it. But we just have to keep progressing as a team.”
To what degree will home court advantage come into play, though, in determining an NBA championship? How does that match up with the Lakers’ need to stay healthy and establish consistent chemistry?
“Every season is different and every team is different, so you can’t say, ‘Well, that’s never been done,'” D’Antoni said. “Well, we’ve never had this team before so nothing is out of the realm of possibilities if you’re playing well at the right moment. That’s what we can control and that’s what we have to do. I think it’s fun to sit around and look at standings and fantasize and watch games and yell at the other team (playing on television), but we can’t control that so that’s not something we have to worry about too much.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org