No letup after the break for Lakers
The Lakers have had a remarkable first 52 games, but, well, there aren’t many awards for remarkable 52-game starts.
With the All-Star break behind them and the Shaq-Kobe detente slipping further over the horizon -- did that really happen? -- the Lakers turned their attention to the rest of the season, and whether it will end in frustration without another championship or with a parade that snakes through the heart of downtown L.A.
The Lakers and their league-best 42-10 record reassembled at their El Segundo training facility Monday, cognizant of the possibilities in the near future but also aware that 17 of their final 30 regular-season games are on the road.
If the Lakers go a modest 20-10 down the stretch, San Antonio would have to go 27-4 to tie them for the best record in the Western Conference. In other words, the Lakers look like solid picks to take the West’s No. 1 playoff seeing.
Earning home-court advantage throughout the postseason will be more of a challenge.
The Boston Celtics (44-11) play only 27 more regular-season games, giving their veterans plenty of time to rest between tipoff times. The Cleveland Cavaliers (40-11) play 16 of their last 31 games at home, where they were 23-0 until the Lakers beat them on Feb. 8.
The Lakers hold head-to-head tiebreakers against Boston and Cleveland, but can they stay ahead of them?
“I don’t know,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said Monday afternoon. “Who knows that? We think we’ve got the experience. Our bench has to provide a little more help for us so we have better support so that Lamar [Odom] and Pau [Gasol] don’t have to play extended minutes. We’ll see if we can’t get that going a little bit better.”
(Just a few minutes earlier, reserve centers Chris Mihm and DJ Mbenga had to be separated during a skirmish at practice, so maybe Jackson’s message was delivered earlier Monday as well.)
Andrew Bynum is expected to be sidelined six to 10 more weeks because of a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee, which keeps Gasol and Odom in the forefront of every discussion if the Lakers want to stay ahead of the Celtics and Cavaliers.
Since Bynum went down seven games ago, Gasol and Odom have stepped up their production. Both have played at a high level with Bynum out, increasing their scoring, rebounding and minutes.
Jackson was asked whether the Lakers needed Gasol and Odom to sustain their pace.
“Yeah,” Jackson said. “It takes the load off Kobe scoring.”
Gasol has produced double-doubles in five of the seven games. The 7-foot Spaniard, who played in the All-Star game Sunday, has averaged 23.7 points, 61.6% shooting, 11.4 rebounds and 42.5 minutes in that stretch.
“Me and Lamar, we get more looks, we get more playing time and it’s more certain that you’re going to be out there and have the ball a little bit more,” Gasol said. “You know those are all the things you’re going to have to do so the absence of Andrew is not that noticeable.”
Odom has averaged 15.8 points, 52.8% shooting, 12.2 rebounds and 36 minutes in the last seven games. He had season highs in rebounds in his last three games, collecting 17, 18 and 19.
“Right now mentally, I’m in an attack mode,” Odom said. “I’m not playing basketball on my heels. I’m not trying to search my way through it. I’m just trying to focus and I’m ready to rip through the wall to kind of get to it.”
Odom worked out several times at the training facility over the break, even getting in some outside shooting after Monday’s practice.
He’s in the final year of a contract that’s on the Lakers’ books for $14.1 million, but Odom said that’s not what is driving him.
“The businessman Lamar Odom understands that it’s there,” he said. “But I kind of owe it to my teammates to kind of be able to put that to the side and just worry about playing.”
Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal seemed to get along on the way to sharing All-Star game MVP honors, though O’Neal professed more affection for Bryant than vice versa.
“We had a great time,” Bryant said Monday, without much emotion. “I think people probably made a little bit more of it than we did. But we had fun.”
Bryant also explained why he let O’Neal, 36, take the MVP trophy.
“You don’t know how many years he’s going to be playing,” he said. “I’ve still got another six, seven, eight years to go. I felt it was the right thing to do.”
Not everybody was enamored of the weekend.
“They go out and play that game and have a good time about it,” said Jackson, who coached the West. “But we’re there kind of like puppets.”