Tough road ahead for Lakers
The next true test begins this week as L.A. navigates a gauntlet of playoff-bound teams
LOS ANGELES -- Don't get me wrong, it's never a good sign for the state of the Lakers to see them lose to the Clippers.
But the loss to their L.A. rival won't be nearly as disheartening as it would be if the Lakers struggle with the rest of their schedule to close out January.
Although the Clippers have gone 10-3 in their past 13 games with Sunday's win, they're six games behind Portland for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the Lakers are five games behind San Antonio for the first seed, so a postseason Staples Center showdown between the hallway rivals is unlikely.
Six of the Lakers' next seven games are against teams with records better than .500. Los Angeles has been a pedestrian 5-5 against teams with winning records this season.
The run of doom starts Monday at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder and continues with road games against Dallas and Denver on Wednesday and Friday followed by three home games against Utah, Sacramento and Boston next week.
The Thunder gave the Lakers all they could handle in the first round of last season's playoffs, when they tied the series 2-2 and were a Pau Gasol tip-in away from Game 7. Dallas beat the Lakers twice during the regular season and retooled its roster in the offseason by bringing in Tyson Chandler to contend with the Lakers' size. Denver already beat L.A. at the Pepsi Center once this season, routed Miami on Thursday and will be formidable as long as Carmelo Anthony is on the roster. The Jazz already beat the Lakers once this season and have faced them in the playoffs each of the past three years. The Kings might be a chance for the Lakers to catch their breath, but the Celtics come after that, and if you're reading this column, you already know how much of a battle that game will be.
"We just got to reboot," Kobe Bryant said after his team's seven-game winning streak was snapped.
That streak was built on softies such as Cleveland, New Jersey and Detroit much in the way the Lakers' 8-0 start to the season came against teams such as Toronto, Sacramento and Minnesota.
Sunday marked Game No. 42 in the Lakers' schedule, a chance to turn the page and put the first half of their 82-game slate behind them with a fresh effort to set the tone for their second-half march.
Instead, after a bunch of Clippers upstarts controlled the glass 50-45 and outscored the Lakers 21-13 in fast-break points, Lakers coach Phil Jackson was left saying, "I didn't like our energy out there."
The rest of the league has been alerted to the blood in the water in Lakers Land. There's a formula to downing the defending champs with a starting lineup that includes four players over age 30 -- force them into mistakes with your athleticism, then run like the Dickens, because they won't catch up.
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"They ran the ball down our throats today, so Oklahoma will do the same thing tomorrow," Bryant said, referring to the disparity in fast-break points, which was the Thunder's biggest strength against L.A. last season.
When the Lakers settled down, increased their level of execution and valued each possession with the same intensity and desire as Kevin Durant & Co., they advanced and carried that with them the rest of the playoffs.
But can they achieve that level of focus with the playoffs so far down the road, with the All-Star Game not even in the books yet?
Gasol, still reeling from the 13 points and eight rebounds he put up against Blake Griffin's 18 and 15 ("Blake punked us," Bryant said), seemed to know the ingredients the Lakers will need for the immediate future.
"Be intense. Be active. Control the game. Don't have any letdowns," Gasol said.
He was then asked whether the Lakers were ready to execute those intentions.
"I'm not sure," Gasol said. "We'll find out as we go through those teams how ready we really are. We thought we were really ready for the Miami game and got our butt kicked."
The Lakers' recent improved play coincided with Andrew Bynum's return to the starting lineup. The Clippers didn't have an answer for him inside on Sunday, as Bynum finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks, but he didn't have an answer for his team's letting a win slip away.
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"I don't understand it," Bynum said. "We get up, and we get kind of comfortable out there. We got to change that.
"We need to start picking up these games. Everyone is picking it up. It's halfway through the season. Everybody is trying to get ready for the playoffs."
A playoff mindset in January for these Lakers? Seems about as incongruous a concept as Christmas in July.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.