With Playoffs Now Realistic, Lakers Must Take Care Of Business

la-sp-lakers-steve-nash-20130129-001Most of Lakers Nation would probably agree, January, 23 2013 was definitively the ‘low-point’ of the season. On that night, the Lakers fell to 17-25 (W/L) on the season, following a 106-93 road defeat at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. Since that night, the Lakers have gone on an 11-5 run, and find themselves just 2.5 games out of the playoffs with 24 games remaining on the schedule. Obviously, this is not the position any of us could have expected them to be in, but I do think some praise is in order for the last 16 games.

Praise, you say?

Yes. Praise. While some fans are naturally disappointed in the way the season has transpired, I understand the necessity to cast aside all of the hype and preseason expectations in order to judge this team fairly and without prejudice. Something, in my humble opinion, most media outlets failed to do, given the extreme conditions and circumstances they’ve endured. Put simply, all of us believed the hype (initially), but some failed to truly acknowledge the high risk/reward element of constructing such a roster.

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Without breaking down every misstep and unfortunate turn of events, I’d venture to say a team that loses its starting and backup point guards (Nash/Blake), starting and backup power forwards (Gasol/Hill) for extended portions or most of the season should be expected to falter. Did I mention the starting center has also understandably struggled to return to physical form following a major back surgery, and has been battling through a partially torn labrum for the better part of six weeks?

These may sound like excuses to some, but if you are fairly assessing this team, all of those components should be considered. That’s precisely why I’ve actually been impressed by the past month of action. Even though Pau Gasol seems to be everyone’s favorite person to blame for everything from the Lakers’ struggles to inclement weather, his torn fascia came at a time when he was coming off back-to-back 22 point, 10+ rebound games and finally looked as though he was finding a way to impact the game in coach D’Antoni’s system. Earl Clark and Antwan Jamison have done an admirable job in his stead, and the Lakers have continued improving despite the loss.  Over the course of this 11-5 stretch, the Lakers beat Oklahoma City, had a winning Grammy Trip, beat the Brooklyn Nets in a shorthanded road game, and found the best way to honor Dr. Jerry Buss’ passing in avenging a disappointing loss at the hands of the Boston Celtics in the following game.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles LakersYou may remember, the change in momentum came in a game against the Utah Jazz, when Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash decided a role reversal was in order. While some may look at it as a ‘sacrifice’ or willing adjustment, I actually think they made the only logical decision. At the time, the team was still struggling to maintain a rhythm as opponents were wearing Nash down over the course of games with aggressive, on-ball pressure. Nash was averaging close to double-digit assists and Bryant was scoring his customary 25-30 points, but it still wasn’t leading to victories.

Most significantly, that path was also leading to continued dissension within the locker room, as teammates privately (some less private) complained about shot distribution and personal agendas. Regardless of some media outlets continuing to report false-accusations and rumors of continued fights and arguments, I believe this was also the period where Dwight Howard started embracing his role within this team. Regardless of where you stand on Howard, the reversal of misfortune (if you will) would not have taken place, had he not bought into what Bryant and Nash were selling.

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While Bryant has returned to his scoring ways, he’s managed to also maintain the balance that has led to recent success. This balanced attack will be key, as the Lakers are far from ‘out of the woods’ in terms of qualifying for the postseason. The Warriors, Jazz, and Rockets have each recently struggled, but neither are just going to simply let these Lakers sneak past them. They’ll have to continue fighting, playing with the proper focus and drive, and earn it.

They’ve already lost the season series with Utah (1-2), but have three games remaining with the Warriors (twice) and Rockets (season finale) that could and most likely will determine at the very least a tie-breaker, if not a playoff position altogether. Games haven’t technically reached  “must-win” status, but every game is significant and equally as important as the next for a team on the outside looking in. Tonight’s match-up against a depleted Timberwolves team is a game you need to win if you truly have the playoffs in mind.

There are no more proverbial ‘reset buttons’, so we can only hope the relative success over the past month is a sign greater things to come, rather than merely a blip on an otherwise disappointing schedule. For the first time in…let’s just say, a considerable amount of time, I am starting to believe in this team. No, I’m no longer predicting a ticker-tape parade down Figueroa, but I do see signs of a much brighter future than any of us would have given this team on January 23rd. I can only hope this team can find a way to escape the final six weeks of the season without any additional injuries, and give themselves at least a puncher’s chance once the postseason arrives.

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