- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- In 2008-09, both of the regular-season Finals rematches between the Lakers and Celtics were of the utmost importance to Los Angeles as it tried to establish it was a championship-caliber team.
When the Lakers return to Amway Arena on Sunday for the first time since winning the title against the Orlando Magic in June 2009, they'll be looking to prove the same thing all over again.
L.A. remains the defending champion in name, but it looks to be a far cry from the team that lifted the Larry O'Brien Trophy nine months ago. The Lakers come into Sunday's game having dropped three straight on the road and their last two overall, including a 15-point drubbing by the sub-.500 Charlotte Bobcats on Friday.
The Lakers believe their title defense will come down to defense. And it's time they start proving they're the same bunch of staunch stoppers they were last season. The Lakers rank eighth in the league in points per game allowed (96.46) and fifth in opponent's field goal percentage (44.2), which registers worse than Orlando in both categories this season.
Sunday's game would figure to be the Lakers' most important matchup of the season thus far if they were playing the moribund New Jersey Nets, let alone the Magic, who have the second-best record in the East and third-best record in the league.
"[We need to] execute better defensively," Kobe Bryant said on Saturday after the Lakers had a meeting that started out as a discussion about defending the pick-and-roll and evolved into Bryant challenging the team to ramp up its "determination" and "willfulness," according to coach Phil Jackson.
"We have to do a much better job protecting the paint and protecting the basket and not giving up so many free throws," Bryant said. "Too many easy opportunities."
One guy you don't want to give easy opportunities to is the Magic's 6-foot-11, 265-pound center, Dwight Howard. The Lakers held him in check for the most part during the Finals, but Howard had 24 points and 12 rebounds in the two teams' first meeting of the season back on Jan. 18, which L.A. won 98-92. Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson was limited by a shoulder injury last year during the championship round, but with him healthy and Howard as omnipresent as ever, the screen-roll game becomes a concern in Sunday's game yet again.
"You got to keep a body on him," Pau Gasol said. "You can't give him space, he'll eat it up if you give it to him. He's a guy who goes to the boards really hard, runs the floor well and is getting better in the post, so you got your work cut out with him. You just have to be really physical and active with him."
Gasol's recent play was described as "weak and sickly" by Jackson before Friday's game. Gasol is averaging just 10.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in the Lakers' past three losses to the Bobcats, Heat and Mavericks. Weak won't fly against Howard, the league's most imposing physical specimen.
"You have to have your mind into it the whole time and before the game to be ready for the matchup," Gasol said. "During the game, it's obviously physically demanding. It's a demanding matchup."
Then there's the streak involving Gasol on the line, too. Since Los Angeles acquired Gasol in February 2008, the Lakers have yet to lose three straight games in 216 games played (172 in the regular season and 44 in the postseason).
"It might happen," Jackson said after the Charlotte loss about the possibility of the streak coming to a close. "We told them on this trip that if they lose the first one, you can steamroll this into a three-loss trip. They're aware of the fact that they can walk into a barnburner on Sunday."
It doesn't get any easier for the Lakers if they lose. Eight of their next 11 games after the Magic game are on the road as well.
"They're frustrated," Jackson said on Saturday. "They're frustrated with the way they're playing as a group right now, that's not unusual. They're used to winning and losing's not an easy thing to stomach."
Lamar Odom held off on letting the frustration get to him until he sees Sunday's result.
"Most likely you'll see us play our style of game, we'll go to our mismatches, we'll find out how to get in our offense, make three-four-five passes," Odom said. "You'll see that against Orlando, most likely. Against the top teams [like Orlando], if you don't see us play our best, then I'll say, 'Oh, we got a problem and something's wrong.'"
Still, Odom acknowledged the apparent crossroads at which his team stands.
"If you had to pick a team who had the most to lose and had the most to prove, who would it be?" Odom asked. "Most to lose, most to prove, at the same time. That's us."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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