Lakers entering critical stretch of their season

The moment the Lakers step foot against the Clippers tonight in a designated road game at Staples Center court, the purple and gold isn’t just trying to quell all the local excitement on their crosstown rivals.

It will also mark the first game of a critical five-game stretch that, for better or worse, will reveal the team’s identity. The Lakers (15-16) remain in 11th place in the Western Conference and play against playoff caliber teams, including Clippers (tonight), Denver Nuggets (Sunday), a road back-to-back against the Houston Rockets (Tuesday) and San Antonio Spurs (Wednesday) and against the Oklahoma City Thunder (Friday).

“It will tell us a lot where we are,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We don’t like our position in the standings. But are we a better or a worse team than what our standings show with our record. After this week, we’ll get a better understanding of either this is getting scary and we have to get up there or this is coming along. This will be a big week for us.”

Bryant hardly minced words when he said tonight’s game was “critical” for the team’s development.

“I look forward to the challenges,” he said. “You find out what you got. When you go through it. If we’re going to be a champion, you have to face the adversity eventually whether it’s in the postseason or regular season. That’s something you have to deal with. You have to come out of it the right way. You’re better off because of it.”

It remains to be seen if that happens.

The Clippers may have lost two consecutive games after compiling a 17-game winning streak. Both teams might prove evenly matched on offense, with the Lakers ranking fifth at 102.84 points per game and the Clippers remaining in ninth with a 101.36 points per game clip. But the Clippers have played sharp on defense, conceding a fourth best 92.94 points per game. Meanwhile, the Lakers hover at 25th overall (allowing 100.26 points per game). The Clippers also feature the NBA’s best bench (averaging 41.7 points), while the Lakers’ second unit hovers at 25th overall (25.8 points per game).

Meanwhile, the Lakers have gone 2-5 against the Clippers, Nuggets, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder this season.

Yet, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has noticed something unique about how the team responds to adversity. They went 4-1 following Mike Brown’s firing and won their first two games following Steve Nash’s return after he missed 24 games because of a fractured left leg.

“Every time there is something new, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is great!’ Then we play well for two or three games,” D’Antoni said. “Then we go back to the rut that got them in the spot in the first place. You talk about it and you guard against it. Obviously we’re in another bad point. So I expect us to come out strongly. Somehow we have to sustain it.”

And if the Lakers don’t?

“We just keep working,” D’Antoni said. “Keep going as hard as you can. I mean that’s all you can do. You just keep putting your head down and try to get as good as you can.”

So far, that approach hasn’t worked.

Nash described the process as “frustrating” where he sensed even Thursday’s practice still felt like training camp. That’s because the team still hasn’t ironed out the right pace under D’Antoni’s offense, hasn’t excelled defensively and has nursed injuries to Nash, Dwight Howard (back surgery), Pau Gasol (knee tendinitis, plantar fasciitis in right foot) and Steve Blake (lower abdominal strain).

Nash concedes “it would be nice to get hot right now.” But he sounded uncertain despite his insistence the Lakers have maintained a positive attitude during their struggles.

“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us,” Nash said. “We have to make the most of the cards we’re dealt. Here we are. We have enough good players to find a way to make this team good and we’ll work everyday to get there.”

Bryant appears optimistic that will happen.

“The opportunity is what you make out of it,” he said. “When you’re going through a tough time, if you look at it as doom and gloom, that’s what your’e going to be stuck in. If you look at it as an opportunity, you have a chane to come out on top.”


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