Is slump their December wake-up call?
With high expectations, it's no wonder trouble usually sparks panic in Lakers' world
SAN ANTONIO -- The expectations are so high, the team so talented, the payroll so expensive for these 2010-11 Los Angeles Lakers that any diversion from a direct-line path toward another NBA championship sends fans into a state of frenzied alarm.
But, as discouraging as back-to-back home losses by a combined 35 points to Milwaukee and Miami are for the Lakers (especially when you consider their first seven losses of the season were by a combined 36 points) it should serve as nothing more than a December wake-up call.
Kobe Bryant & Co. are trying to become the first team in the league since the 1984-85 Lakers to reach four straight NBA Finals and the first since the 2001-02 Lakers to win three straight titles.
What the Lakers are setting out to accomplish is so ridiculously difficult that it's about time everybody along for the ride -- players, coaches, fans, media -- be reminded just how tough a task it really is.
There's no better reminder than playing a game against the San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers get the guys in black and silver when they are reeling and the Spurs are soaring, owners of the best record in the league at 26-4 and a 13-2 mark over their past 15 games (as opposed to L.A.'s 8-7 record over their past 15).
Since the start of the 1998-99 season -- before Tim Duncan had any of his four rings or Bryant had any of his five -- the Lakers and Spurs have played 75 games against each another and the series record is 38-37 in favor of L.A.
They've both been the class of the league, but only one team has been classified as a repeat champ.
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During that time the Lakers have a three-peat and are currently riding back-to-back titles, while San Antonio never even won two in a row. The Spurs won a championship against the Knicks in 1999, then lost in the first round to the Suns in 2000. They won a championship in 2003, then lost in the second round to the Lakers in 2004. They won a championship in 2005, then lost in the conference finals to the Mavericks in 2006. They won a championship in 2007, then lost in the conference finals to the Lakers in 2008.
"It wasn't going to be easy," Bryant said during his postgame tirade after the horrendous Christmas Day loss to the Heat. "This type of situation is always tough, but if it was easy to win a three-peat you would see a lot of teams being able to do it in the past. That's why there are so few teams that have been able to do it. If we're going to be one of them, we need to get our butts in gear."
Just like repeating is nothing new for the Lakers, struggling during the pursuit of that repeat is nothing new either.
In 2001-02, the last of the Kobe-Shaq rings, the Lakers started the season 16-1 and then hit the December doldrums, going 4-5 over their next nine games. Later that season they went through a nine-game stretch when they went just 3-6.
"We had doldrums because Shaq was out," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "That doesn't have anything to do with this group right now."
Maybe that's going too far back. After all, Bryant and Derek Fisher were the only two players still on the Lakers' roster since their three-peat.
There are struggles now that are already echoing the pitfalls from last season.
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After the Christmas loss, Lamar Odom said, "We're cocky. We feel like we shouldn't lose or we can't lose, and that's been our problem this season, especially early on in this season. We were overconfident. Do you know how many teams are gunning for us?"
Last season, on Jan. 29 before the Lakers played the 76ers in Philadelphia, Odom offered a similar refrain.
"Cockiness gets in our way," he said. "It does. Sometimes if you're a little too cocky then you wake up, look up and then you decide to turn it on. Well, the other team already has it turned on. All their guys are hitting shots, getting to loose balls and the basketball gods are taking care of them the whole game. It happens to the cocky."
From that game on, the Lakers went just 11-7 (.611) over their next 18 games after starting the season 36-11 (.766), meaning that just because Odom identified the problem the team wasn't able to rectify it immediately.
Things could get worse for the Lakers before they get better, starting with the Spurs game.
They say if you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it.
In this case, learning from their history can help the Lakers repeat.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.