The Los Angeles Lakers have arrived at the make-or-break juncture of the season, and if the schedule and standings weren't daunting enough, the Lakers also must contend with time and the fundamentals of physics.
First, the facts. The Lakers (15-16) play the Clippers Friday, the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, back-to-back games in Houston and San Antonio next Tuesday and Wednesday, and a home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder next Friday. Five games in eight days against five teams on track to qualify for the playoffs. If we're going to take them seriously as contenders, the Lakers need to go 4-1. Normally, a 3-2 record in this challenging period would be encouraging; in this case, that would leave them at .500 for the season. That won't cut it.
"It's a big stretch for us," Kobe Bryant said. "We've got to turn things around. At this stage of the year, going against these top teams, it's a tough stretch but it's a chance to see what we're made of."
Now, the problems. Plural. The Lakers have given no indication that they're ready to play the way they were expected to -- and now have to just make it to the postseason. There are valid reasons for their setbacks, including a coaching change, a dramatic shift in offensive system and Steve Nash missing all but seven games with a broken bone in his leg. The end result is a team that has made little to no progress in three months.
Back in October, when the media were allowed into the Lakers' practice facility for our first look at this ensemble, we saw a group that was filled with good intentions and poor execution. Kobe tried to throw a pass to Dwight Howard in the lane and the play was quickly jammed up. Howard pointed to the rim, telling Bryant he preferred to get the ball up high where only he could get it, rather than give everyone a chance at it down low.
Flash forward to their scrimmage at the end of practice Thursday, when Bryant fired a pass to Howard that was broken up by a hustling Devin Ebanks on the baseline, Pau Gasol's lob attempt to Howard was knocked away and Metta World Peace couldn't get off a 3-pointer before the shot clock expired.
"In some respects it still feels like a training camp practice," Nash said afterward. "We're still trying to figure each other out, get to know each other."
That doesn't sound like the right state with which to enter this five-game stretch. And it doesn't sound encouraging when Kobe sounds off on how old this team is, how incapable it is of matching opponents' athleticism. Some nights the Lakers are not only deficient in ability, they're lacking in effort.
"It seems like we're not quite there yet," Gasol said. "We take a couple of good steps in the right direction, then we take a step backwards. We can't afford many steps backwards right now."
It seems like we're not quite there yet. We take a couple of good steps in the right direction, then we take a step backwards. We can't afford many steps backwards right now.
”-- Pau Gasol
Sometimes the energy is there, something Mike D'Antoni recently attributed to the return of Nash.
"I think they're starting to believe a little bit more, especially when Steve's here, that if I can get open I'm going to get the ball," D'Antoni said.
"With him, they know that if you play and you play hard, you'll get rewarded."
The only problem is this presumes you can generate newfound energy, which violates the first law of thermodynamics -- it states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed from one form to another. It's not that the Lakers haven't been trying. But when Howard is less than a year removed from back surgery, you're going to have nights like the seven points he scored against Philadelphia or the six rebounds he had at Golden State.
Gasol, who has dealt with tendinitis and plantar fasciitis, can't keep up with the smaller forwards he is asked to guard. Kobe isn't flying back in transition defense, especially when he's trying to score below the free throw line.
The chances of the Lakers' current roster getting more energetic are about as likely as Kobe fulfilling his New Year's resolution to get younger.
They can counter by playing smarter, cutting down the fast break-igniting turnovers by executing and making smarter decisions with the ball. They can have a better understanding of their defensive concepts and rotations, and communicate better.
"We've got to focus on ourselves and the things we need to do to get better on both ends of the floor," Gasol said. "That's the main thing."
If it's going to happen for the Lakers, it must happen now. Not even Bryant, who often admonishes the media to avoid overreacting, disputes the urgency of this period.
"It's critical," Bryant said when I asked if that terminology could actually apply in January. "That's fine."
A week from now, we'll know everything there is to know about this team.