If “dog days” was in the dictionary, they might have a picture of a marquee reading:
INDIANA AT LAKERS
Tuesday, March 2
Of course, having misplaced their game, the Lakers can’t ease up against anyone . . . or, at least, that was the plan, before easing up in Tuesday night’s first half, then awakening to bury the lowly Pacers, 122-99.
Kobe Bryant, coming off his three-for-17 game against Denver, went five for 14 from the field but scored 24 points, his most since his Feb. 23 return in Memphis.
For all their struggles, the Lakers still moved six games ahead of the West, even if the question all Lakerdom is asking is:
THIS TEAM IS 46-15?
Coach Phil Jackson, normally the sunniest of optimists, acknowledged his team’s malaise at Monday’s practice, noting: “With Kobe playing like he is, it’s hard to judge who we are right now.”
On the other hand, it wasn’t hard to judge who the Pacers were. As the late Chuck Daly used to say, “You are what your record says you are, no better, no worse” -- and they were the team with the 20-39 record, No. 26 in the NBA.
Reggie Miller, the greatest Pacer of them all, dates their fall to the 2004 Auburn Hills melee, noting recently they “have never, ever recovered from that night. Things will never be the same until they get lucky in the draft.”
At the moment, the Pacers are also the team trying to play small ball, making the Lakers their ultimate test.
“They’re the ultimate test, period,” Coach Jim O’Brien said before the game. “It doesn’t matter what lineup you put out there when you play the world champions, you know you’re going to be tested at every spot. . . .
“The small lineup is our best lineup. We played them that way [in the season’s first meeting, a 118-96 Lakers victory] and it was nip and tuck at our place.
“But their length -- they had 20 offensive rebounds against us in Indiana. We held them on their first shot to around 35-36% shooting but then they murdered us on the glass.
“They murder a lot of people on the glass. When you’re looking at [Andrew] Bynum and Gasol and [Ron] Artest and bringing [Lamar] Odom off the bench. . . .
“We understand the challenge that we have.”
That was one thing they had on the Lakers, who sent their bodies on ahead of their minds. The first quarter featured a half-hearted effort including these non-highlight plays:
* Josh McRoberts sneaking behind the sleeping Lakers defense for a layup.
* Bryant throwing his second pass behind Bynum on a pick-and-roll, after which Andrew stretched out his arms to show Kobe how much he missed by.
* McRoberts dunking over Bryant, who backed off on a two-on-one fastbreak.
McRoberts, the third-year reserve with his second team, scored nine points in the first quarter. Of course, he had one advantage: He was trying really hard.
Not that it moved O’Brien, after the Lakers drew themselves to their full height in the second half and smote the little fellows.
“It’s irrelevant,” O’Brien said of McRoberts’ effort afterward. “Got to do it in a winning effort.”
Not that it was like bagging an elephant. “Two summers from now,” said O’Brien, “we’ll have a large amount of money and when we get to that point, we want to have developed a young nucleus of players.”
As for the Lakers, as Jackson noted afterward, going on the road for six of their next seven could be just what they need, assuming they get wake-up calls before the game, rather than during it.
Not that we didn’t already know what a gap there was between the West’s best and everyone else. . . .
Of course, at halftime Sunday when the Nuggets, who had already beaten the Lakers twice, by an average of 19.5 points, led them again by nine, it looked like there was a new best team in the West.