There’s a long way to go for Lakers

As January drones into February, meaning the dog days of the never-ending NBA season are here, the defenders need to begin to defend.

The champions of last season, the Lakers, are 40 games into a season that could go almost two times more. Remember how it works. Do you get your coffee and read the story about the Lakers’ playoff game first, or the one previewing the U.S. Open golf tournament?

The biggest weather issue in the NBA Finals is June gloom. Some sports are seasonal. Pro basketball is like that character from “Howdy Doody”: Princess Summerfall Winterspring.

Friday night was a good ease-in to what is ahead for the Lakers.

They played the visiting Clippers, who visited from their locker room 40 feet down the hall. Slap that Lakers logo down on center court and Staples Center is all Lakers. Good old home-court advantage. In these games, the refs keep glancing at the logo so they can remember which team to favor.

The Lakers had lost to the Clippers in their most recent meeting Jan. 6. That was a Clippers home game. The refs got that one right.

History said that that wouldn’t repeat itself. In the previous 10 games against the Clippers, the Lakers were 9-1. The Lakers are 17-4 at Staples against the Clippers, which is a lot of logo-overcoming.

So, their 126-86 rout was a good start for what is ahead, especially since the best team in pro basketball had gone just 7-5 in its previous 12 games.

The Lakers have played more home games than any team in the NBA. Soon comes payback. That means lots of games in lots of cold and dreary places and lots of trips to airports. After a Monday night home game against last season’s opponent in the finals, the Orlando Magic, it is up in the air, minus George Clooney.

These games aren’t meaningless, they just seem like it, buried in a mind-numbing 82-game regular season.

Starting Thursday night at Cleveland, where LeBron James and the wind off the lake will both be waiting, the Lakers will play eight games in 12 days, six of them on consecutive nights. The good news is that, for the first time this season, all Lakers players are active and playing. Pau Gasol started the season with a bad hamstring and missed more time recently with the same thing in the other leg. Luke Walton is back, but looks rusty. Lamar Odom has a bad hand and is working through that.

Most important, the straw that stirs the drink on this team and, in many ways, in this league, has a finger on his shooting hand taped and needs to follow through differently on his jump shot. That was such an impediment for Kobe Bryant on Friday that he had only 22 points at the end of three quarters, and 30 at the end of the game. This after not even taking a shot until 3:42 remained in the first quarter and not making one until 1:20 later.

The Clippers made an 11-0 run to start the second quarter, but Lakers Coach Phil Jackson stopped the run with a timeout and set a play that got Shannon Brown a three-pointer from the left corner. That’s why Jackson’s in the Hall of Fame.

By the end of the half, the Lakers led, 53-50. By the end of the third quarter, it was 89-67, foreshadowing the usual NBA closing period of garbage time.

The Lakers’ victory was a good springboard to what is ahead. A victory over the Magic too will really send them off to the NBA hinterlands in fine shape.

Beating the Clippers handily is no small thing. Unlike many seasons of late, when they were just pathetic, the Clippers are decent this season. They are 17-21 and in third place in the Pacific Division. And this, in a season of woe uncharacteristic even to the Clippers, who have cornered the NBA market on existing with a dark cloud over their heads.

The recent topper was the announcement that Blake Griffin, the top draft pick in the league, would have season-ending surgery on his injured kneecap. That announcement was just after the Clippers lost a game at Memphis they were controlling until a water main broke, the arena was evacuated, and the Clippers’ shooting went dead when they returned. They lost, 104-102.

This is a team that would go picking four-leaf clovers and get bit by a rattlesnake.

Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy, who has had to become a master at finding silver linings over the years, said he never allows himself to feel sorry for his, or his team’s situation.

“It’s like the old TV show, ‘The Naked City,’ ” Dunleavy said. “There are a million stories, and the only one that matters is the big picture. Are you on the rise, have you got all your guns blazing?”

Dunleavy said he felt his team does, although there may be some frustrated Clippers fans who see only pea shooters.

In this city, of course, the big shots are the guys in purple and gold. Their hammering of the Clippers on Friday night could be viewed as a start to yet another thrilling playoff run.

The road ahead is long. They will be weary. But they are millionaires with championship rings on their fingers.

It is time. No excuses.