The Lakers reassembled Monday afternoon, their nine-game trip and the All-Star break behind them, but a 30-game journey looming in the future.
The team has ripped through expectations so far, pushing toward the front of the flock, but there’s that geographic issue of not being in the watered-down Eastern Conference. There’s really no rest in the West.
Only three games separate the top six teams in the conference standings, with the Lakers (35-17) currently owning the third-best record.
“It’s the wild, wild West, truly,” Kobe Bryant said.
The Lakers have 17 home games and 13 road games left, a scheduling advantage that might be more celebrated by them if not for the injury cloud hovering overhead.
Center Andrew Bynum is at least three weeks from returning from a left knee injury and forward Trevor Ariza is still about eight weeks from returning from a broken bone in his right foot. Ariza’s original timetable called for a return to health four weeks from now, but his foot was “healing more slowly than we hoped,” a team official said Monday.
Then there is Bryant’s right pinkie, which was injured two weeks ago and aggravated last Wednesday.
He played fewer than three minutes in Sunday’s All-Star game, by design, and he intends to endure the rest of the season playing with a torn ligament in the finger. Surgery was recommended by a hand specialist and quickly dismissed by Bryant.
And yet, Coach Phil Jackson offered surprisingly strong guidance on what he expected from the Lakers over the last 30 regular-season games.
“I think probably we have to win 25 games,” he said Monday. “I think that’s probably what a team is going to have to do to win it outright [in the West], somewhere between 20 and 25.”
Nothing like shooting for the sky -- 25 would give them a 60-win season.
Then again, the Lakers were supposed to have been shot down long ago, what with the low expectations when the season began amid tumult and uncertainty.
They’ve merely gone 17-7 at home, 18-10 on the road and have been stirred by the acquisition of Pau Gasol, who has averaged 20.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists in six games with the Lakers.
Gasol, for the record, feels the same way. “It just gave me a shot of life,” he said.
Other teams took notice, with the Phoenix Suns acquiring Shaquille O’Neal and the Dallas Mavericks on Monday reportedly putting the final touches on a deal to obtain Jason Kidd from the New Jersey Nets, as if the West needed to get more challenging.
“It’s going to be tight, right down to the end,” forward Lamar Odom said. “Actually, the playoffs have really already started because of the two-game or three-game separation.”
As the Lakers try to stay near the top of the heap, all eyes will be on Bryant’s pinkie, which also has an avulsion fracture, in which a small fragment of bone is pulled off by a tendon. Bryant was asked 15 questions about his pinkie by reporters after Monday’s practice.
He will play with it wrapped much the way he did in the Lakers’ last four games, with athletic tape rolled more thickly between the webbing of his ring and pinkie fingers.
Bryant was off the mark his first two games after sustaining the injury Feb. 5 against the Nets, making only seven of 29 shots (24.1%). He played better his last four games, averaging 32.3 points and making 37 of 76 shots (48.7%).
He expressed concern that his finger might get caught in a jersey or pushed back by a ball being passed to him, but that was it for any anxiety.
“I’m going to go all the way with it,” Bryant said. “If it dislocates again, we’ll have to rest it, ice it, do whatever we need to do. But that’s my plan.”
Bryant says he doesn’t think he will be unfairly targeted by opponents, be it by a sly slap on the finger or a more obvious hack. He said they wouldn’t have the audacity to try it. “If it was the 1980s, I’d be worried about it, but I’m not worried about it now,” he said.
Otherwise, all signals point to Bryant’s being in a better mind-set than when the season began.
He has steadily dropped more and more hints about his general contentment with the Lakers, most recently saying every day was “like Christmas” with so much talent surrounding him on the court.
The Lakers’ hierarchy has taken notice.
“This is the happiest Kobe has been since Shaquille O’Neal was with the Lakers,” Magic Johnson, a minority owner, said Sunday on TNT. “He feels confident about the team and thinks they can make a good run in the playoffs.”
Along those lines, Bryant was asked if he was impressed 52 games into the Lakers’ season.
“Yeah, I am,” he said. “I think we’ve dropped some games that we should have won, but all in all, I’m pleased with where we’re at. Now it’s just about trying to kick it up another notch.”
Bryant wasn’t the only Laker who kept traveling after their nine-game trip.
Jordan Farmar had 17 points and game highs with 12 assists and four steals in the rookie-sophomore All-Star challenge Friday in New Orleans.
“I had some teammates that got hot,” Farmar said. “Playing with the spread floor is a lot different than playing here. It’s easier to get in there and make some things happen. I got in there, did what I had to do and left.”
vs. Atlanta, 7:30, FSN West
Site -- Staples Center.
Radio -- 570, 1330.
Records -- Lakers 35-17, Hawks 21-28.
Record vs. Hawks -- 0-1.
Update -- Former Sacramento Kings guard Mike Bibby will make his Hawks debut tonight after being acquired last week for four players. The Hawks beat the Lakers on Feb. 6, 98-95, one of only two losses for the Lakers on their nine-game trip. Kobe Bryant, who was still adjusting to a recently injured pinkie in that game, scored 11 points on four-for-16 shooting and had a costly turnover with eight seconds left.