Who are these Lakers?
Are they a scrappy bunch willing to sacrifice roles for the sake of winning as they’ve shown in the past week? Or are they an underachieving team that will fail to consistently maximize the talent they have?
The Lakers concede they don’t know. Hence, why they’re attaching great significance to the team’s seven-game, 12-day trip that starts tonight against the Phoenix Suns (15-30)at US Airways Center.
“It’s huge. Absolutely huge,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “It can be a really really great trip for us, a great trip for us or an absolutely [expletive] trip.”
That’s because the Lakers (20-25) trail the Houston Rockets (25-22) by four games for the eighth playoff spot. As a team hoping to sneak into the postseason, entering this trip with a seven-game road losing steak and a 5-15 mark overall hardly sounds ideal.
“At some point, we have to be a good road team if we’re going to make the playoffs,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “We have to win at home and on the road. So, it doesn’t matter how they come. We’re playing better basketball and we have to go out on the road and prove it.”
Knowing the Lakers, they could fall in either extreme.
They start their trip against sub.500 opponents in Phoenix (tonight), Minnesota (Friday) and Detroit (Sunday). The trip then morphs into a contest against Eastern Conference power houses in Brooklyn (Tuesday) and a heat-rival in Boston (Thursday). Then, the Lakers have a yawner against Charlotte (Friday) and a must-see game against Miami (Feb. 10).
The Lakers have found a new formula that’s entailed Bryant passing, Steve Nash shooting, Dwight Howard defending, Earl Clark providing everything and Pau Gasol coming off the bench as a backup center. It’s played out so well that the Lakers even upset the Thunder, whose youth and speed often overwhelmed them. It’s surely possible they could translate that over into the Grammy trip.
Bryant even went so far in saying that the Lakers should go 7-0 on the trip. So did Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni. That’s bold for a team that’s lost seven consecutive road games.
“My expectations right now, and I don’t want to sound crazy … I think we can win every game, always,” D’Antoni said. “With the group that we have, you play like this, you can win every game.”
Yet, the Lakers have yet to establish an identity on the road.
The Lakers’ losses on the road have been fairly equal against non-playoff teams (Sacramento, Toronto, Cleveland) and the league’s elite (New York, Memphis, Oklahoma City). The Lakers also went 0-3 on last week’s trip after believing their two-game winning streak against Cleveland and Milwaukee suggested they turned a corner.
Meanwhile, the Lakers’ resurgence hasn’t been entirely perfect.
They almost coughed up an 18-point lead in their win Tuesday over the New Orleans Hornets, the Western Conference’s second-to-last team. The Lakers attribute their air-it-out meeting last week sparking team unity, but Gasol’s frustration increased after sitting the entire fourth quarter on the bench. Any setback could make it harder for teammates to buy into their new roles on a long-term basis.
Still, the Lakers sound determined to directly tackle that challenge.
“You just got to go out there and see what you got,” Bryant said. “It’s not something that I’m worried about. It’s not something that makes me nervous. You got to go out there and see what you got.”