- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Friday's home game against the New Jersey Nets will mark the 41st game on the Los Angeles Lakers' 82-game regular season schedule. On the eve of the occasion, head coach Phil Jackson doled out a midterm grade for his squad after the team's practice Thursday.
"We're definitely a B-team right now," Jackson said. "We have room for improvement. What I like about it is we've got their attention and they're starting to be attentive on defense and know that they've got an opportunity to be a really good team.
"The halfway point obviously says something about a team. We're not displeased with where we're at; we're unhappy we had some consecutive losses. We want to try to eliminate that over the course of the season. You'll have a bad game, maybe you might have another one, but you want to eliminate multiple losses in the season and we fell into that a couple times during the early part of this year."
Los Angeles already has one two-game losing streak, one three-game losing streak and one four-game losing streak this season. None of Jackson's 11 championship teams he coached lost four in a row during the regular season. However, the Lakers have currently won six games in a row and seven out of eight since center Andrew Bynum's surgically repaired right knee was strong enough to allow him to return to the starting lineup. They have the second-best record in the Western Conference and trail the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs by 4.5 games.
"I'd like to see us put a string of games together, I think that's really important," Jackson said when asked what his team needed to do to up their grade to an A by the end of the season. "Gain the type of confidence that you have in what you're doing out there regardless of your opponents and go through a space of time in which you can run a certain sense of winning streak and keep it going. There's going to be bad games or games that are close or tight or whatever, but you find ways to win and those are the things that kind of send you over the top for a season."
"Health-wise I think we're starting to come together," Jackson said, continuing his midseason assessment. "Matt [Barnes] still has a ways to go before he's back on the court, our rotations aren't great yet patching up behind him, but we're starting to figure out how to play games together a lot better with how to use our inside strength, both offensively and defensively, and our board work is starting to wear teams down."
Barnes, who underwent successful surgery Tuesday to repair the lateral meniscus in his right knee, said it was a "simple procedure" and he was in and out of the operating room and back home within three hours.
"Mentally, it's just kind of frustrating for the first surgery of my career to happen during the most important season of my career," Barnes said. "I got to work through this and do my part to come back healthy and be able to help this team down the stretch."
It was the first surgery of his eight-year career, but his body responded well to his first day of rehab Thursday.
"Today was just really measuring my flexibility and take a look at the swelling and I didn't swell too bad so we're really going to start hitting it hard [Friday]," Barnes said.
If Barnes is out for the full eight weeks estimated as the recovery time at the time of his surgery, he would return right around March 10, when the Lakers play the Heat in Miami, leaving 17 games on the regular-season schedule for him to get his rhythm back before the playoffs start.
"You know me, I'm going to work as hard as I possibly can to be back sooner but make sure I'm healthy at the same time," Barnes said, adding he has game film from Jackson's Chicago Bulls teams to try to learn the guard position in the triangle offense.
Ratliff underwent a partial meniscectomy on his left knee on Nov. 16 and was initially scheduled to be out a minimum of four to six weeks. As he nears the eight-week mark, the backup center made encouraging progress Thursday, participating in a series of running and conditioning drills on the court with other Lakers reserves.
The 16-year veteran, who turns 38 years old in April, tried to return ahead of schedule, but a hard workout on the elliptical machine about three weeks ago caused a setback in his recovery process. According to a team spokesman, Ratliff is scheduled to return to full practice either Jan. 23 or Jan. 24, after the Lakers return to L.A. following a two-game road trip through Dallas and Denver.
"It's good to be out on the floor being able to run and sprint again," Ratliff said, wearing interwoven kinesiology tape on the knee. "It's always a blessing to be able to step out there."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
20mMichael C. Wright