Lakers reeling in the reeling Spurs
L.A. sets its sights on the West's best record, once a far-fetched notion
LOS ANGELES -- Catch the San Antonio Spurs for the top seed in the West with less than two months remaining in the regular season?
It seemed like a pretty ridiculous proposition for the Los Angeles Lakers to achieve back on Feb. 16.
But then again, losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers that day, a team they beat by 55 points the first time the two teams met this season, seemed pretty ridiculous, too.
Well, the Lakers' loss to the Cavs dropped them nine games behind the Spurs as the NBA calendar turned to the All-Star break, the most they've trailed San Antonio all season.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson often references one of his longtime assistant Tex Winter's favorite pearls of wisdom: "Everything can turn on a trifle."
To everything turn, turn, turn, including the Western Conference standings that look a lot different than they did before Blake Griffin jumped over a car to win the slam dunk contest and Kobe Bryant hoisted the All-Star Game MVP trophy.
The Lakers have won nine straight games and 17 of 18 to cut San Antonio's lead to just 1½ games . Their 17-1 record since the All-Star break carries with it by far the best winning percentage (.944) in NBA history after the break, outpacing the 1996-97 Utah Jazz, who went 31-4 (.886), by a significant margin.
The Spurs, meanwhile, have lost six straight. It is the longest skid of Tim Duncan's storied 14-season career. You have to go back to the year before Duncan came to town to find a San Antonio team that lost as many in a row.
Now, with six games left for the Spurs and seven games left for the Lakers and one game remaining between the two of them on April 12, the Lakers control their own destiny. If L.A. wins out -- even if San Antonio goes 5-1 and loses only that game against the Lakers -- Los Angeles secures the No. 1 seed.
"We never thought too much about it because it wasn't up to us," Pau Gasol said after the Lakers' comeback win in Utah on Friday. "The distance has been always really large until this point."
Jackson still doesn't want his team to think about it, saying the Lakers have to get through their next four games, starting with the Denver Nuggets on Sunday (12:30 p.m. PT, ABC), before he'll address the possibility of its happening.
"If we can go through Sunday and these Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday games OK, then the last three games, we'll talk about it," Jackson said.
That doesn't mean there's a gag order on Jackson's players, however.
"We want the best record in the league, and we want first place," Andrew Bynum said.
And when Lamar Odom was asked whether passing the Spurs has become a realistic goal at this point, he said, "I think so."
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As well as the Lakers have been playing, each of their remaining games presents its own challenge. The Nuggets have won five in a row and 14 of 18 since trading away Carmelo Anthony, and a big national TV game against a rival such as the Lakers could be their true coming-out party. Next comes the Jazz game, which should be winnable, but Utah will have revenge fresh on the mind. Then it's the second night of a back-to-back in Golden State, followed by another road game in Portland against a hot Blazers team that has won seven of its past 10 and always plays L.A. well at the Rose Garden.
The final three-game stretch Jackson referenced starts with a home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are coming off a 14-2 record in March and will be trying desperately to avoid the season sweep at the hands of the Lakers. That's followed by the matchup that could mean everything at home against the Spurs, then an ending in Sacramento on the second night of a back-to-back on what promises to be an emotional night because it could be the last time the Kings play in the city before moving to Anaheim.
If the Lakers play well enough to catch the Spurs, they will be putting themselves in a great position to become the top seed overall. As of Saturday morning, the Lakers had an identical 55-20 record as Chicago (although the Bulls hold the tiebreaker), but had some space between them and the teams behind them (the Dallas Mavericks are two games back, the Miami Heat 2½ games back and the Boston Celtics three games back).
The one commonality in the Lakers' three consecutive trips to the Finals was that they were the No. 1 seed in the West each year. And the commonality in their two consecutive championships is that they had home-court advantage in the Finals. When they lost in 2008, the Celtics were the higher seed.
Bryant has his own theory, however, of what overtaking the Spurs could mean for the Lakers.
"It means nothing," he said Friday night.
A couple of weeks ago, he claimed, "Home-court advantage to me is overrated." He explained that, in his mind, the Lakers didn't have home-court advantage against Boston in the Finals last season because after L.A. dropped one of the first two games at Staples Center, the rest of the Finals became a best-of-five series with three games hosted by the Celtics.
Bryant genuinely believes that, and he has first-hand experience in the true road team winning in the 2-3-2 Finals format as the Detroit Pistons beat his Lakers in 2004 as the lower seed.
But Jackson has his own reasons for not putting too much stock in catching the Spurs quite yet.
"It's simply this," Jackson said. "We've played very well, [but] you can go out and have a stinker like we had in the first half [Friday] and lose a ballgame, not have that energy in the second half to come back and win. It's asking a lot of a team to continue at that pace and expect them to play at that pace. We want to do it and have every urgency to do it, but the odds are against us. It's still a real tough thing to do."
Then again, it was tough to imagine this even being a conversation worth having two months ago.