Somewhere along the way Coach Phil Jackson challenged them not to lose 20 games before year's end and, true to their regular-season sensibilities, they lost 19. Now they're in the midst of five days between games, coming off two days away from all matters basketball, and report at 10:30 this morning for a go at initiating defense of their three consecutive NBA titles.
Because what they did for the first two months looked less like defending than offending.
Shaquille O'Neal has asked that they return to .500, often the bare minimum for playoff qualification, by the Feb. 9 All-Star game, which would require a record of at least 11-4 between now and then. It would bring the Lakers to 24-23.
The Lakers don't really do regular seasons, but they've left themselves little choice. Already Jackson is adding dimensions to the triangle offense he said he usually keeps until the playoffs, and he would like to reintroduce the concepts of full-court press and zone defense.
More than a year has passed since the NBA legalized zone defenses, and ever since it has been like a half-done household project for the Lakers.
A breezy January schedule begins Saturday at Phoenix and continues the next night at Staples Center, also against the Suns. By the All-Star break, they will have played only 15 more games, eight of them at home.
"We know that we're playing better as a basketball team," Jackson said on the last practice day. "It's a matter of finding effort all the way through the game. Two or three weeks ago, we were very concerned about our competitive efforts.
"We need a couple more wins to establish some momentum."
O'Neal said he hadn't intended to marry on Dec. 26. He had hoped for Dec. 25.
"When I first looked at the schedule, I didn't think we were playing on Christmas this year," he said.
Jackson hoped to see the most physical recovery from Robert Horry, whose body rebelled from a lot of early minutes.... Rick Fox, who after missing seven of eight shots on Christmas Day had a shooting percentage of 38.5, has made nine of 14 shots since.... The Lakers are shooting 43% from the floor, their highest percentage of the season and up from the 38.7% they were shooting when O'Neal came off the injured list. Last year, they shot 46.1%.... Among those shooting well below their career percentages: Kobe Bryant, Fox, Horry, Walker, Slava Medvedenko and Tracy Murray.