Commentary

Lakers' backs are now against the wall

Mired in a five-game losing streak, L.A. finds its playoff position suddenly at risk

Updated: April 11, 2011, 9:08 AM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLos Angeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers can thank the Oklahoma City Thunder once again.

Los Angeles' 120-106 loss to the Thunder on Sunday has the Lakers backed against a wall.

It's about time.

"Maybe it puts us in a position that we need to be in where we have to [win]," said Lamar Odom. "We haven't been in one of those in a long time."

The Thunder put the Lakers in a similar soul-searching mode in the first round of the playoffs last April after Oklahoma City's 21-point win in Game 4 tied the series 2-2.

From that point on, when the Lakers could feel the pressure of ending their season as losers, L.A. went on to win eight straight games in the playoffs and eventually beat Boston in the Finals.

[+] EnlargeLakers
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Lakers' five-game vacation is costing them valuable positioning in the upcoming playoffs.

"It raised our level to play them," Kobe Bryant admitted earlier this season.

This time around, the Thunder raised the Lakers awareness. If they aren't careful, their three-peat dream could dissipate before it even gets a real chance to get started.

The Lakers' 17-1 mark out of the All-Star break gates was fueled by the team's goal of catching Dallas for the No. 2 seed in the West. Once they appeared to be comfortably ahead, a loss to a hungry Denver team caused them to pump the breaks.

L.A. ended up veering off the road.

"We grew complacent a little bit," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "We got caught."

Their five-game skid undid their success, as the Mavericks are now tied with the Lakers at 55-25, although the Lakers hold the first two tiebreakers by virtue of winning the Pacific Division and taking the season series 2-1.

Suddenly, L.A.'s back-to-back games against San Antonio on Tuesday and Sacramento on Wednesday aren't just about resting starters in advance of the playoffs (as Bryant said the Spurs are likely to do). It's about fighting to make sure that 17-of-18 run wasn't in vain.

"We got to a point that we need to bounce back. Obviously, we must win these next two. There's no room for error," Pau Gasol said. "We got to a point now where every game will be a playoff game for us. That's how important these next two games are. They're must-wins if we want to keep that second seed."

The loss to the Thunder wasn't as bad as the laughers against Golden State and Portland. The Lakers corrected their turnover problem until they didn't, coughing up just one through the first three quarters and then giving it away nine times in the fourth. And their defense, which Bryant classified as "horrible" after the game, wasn't as bad in quarters 2-4 as it was in the first. They gave up 36 points on 63.6 percent shooting in the first period and then "just" 28 points per quarter on 52 percent shooting after that. So that's some kind of progress.

The bigger progress that these "never too high, never too low" Lakers have realized is that they can't just rest on their résumé and expect to get out of the hole they've stumbled into.

Yes, they lost nine of their last 13 games to end last year's regular season, but that team missed Bryant for four of its final five games while Andrew Bynum also sat out with an Achilles injury.

This year, the players' health doesn't need to be mended, but their minds do.

"It kind of happened the same thing last year at the end," Gasol said. "We just had no pressure from nobody behind us. This year the standings are a lot, closer, tighter, and we're trying to sustain that second place. So it's a different story. Every season is a different story."

The next chapter for these guys will be what promises to be a spirited practice Monday before their final two-step before the big dance begins this weekend.

Bryant and Bynum both stressed the importance of getting together on the El Segundo practice floor because, as Bynum put it, "We're not a unit right now."

Bynum actually said the first thing on his list of priorities was watching game tape from Sunday's loss. He understands that to start moving toward June, the Lakers have to look to the rest of April first.

Jackson said he was "surprised" by his team's downturn, but you can't say he was shocked. When the Lakers were on their tear, he kept trying to simplify his team's focus, taking the pressure off of catching San Antonio by stating that it's not a goal On Sunday, he said the Eastern Conference standings don't matter to him either. I guess when you declare that inconsequential, it softens the blow of not being able to catch Chicago and falling a half-game behind Miami -- a team that went 2-0 against L.A. this season.

"Every year there are situations that make you feel like, 'This might not be the year,'" said Derek Fisher. "Every time."

For a group that's made it to three straight Finals and won two rings, they've seemed to learn how to deal with that doubt pretty well.

The urgency just came a little early this time around.

"We got to win. Now," said Bynum. "That's really the only thing to say."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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