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When Luke Walton woke up Saturday morning in Houston he had a present waiting for him at the front desk of the hotel. A FedEx package had been shipped overnight from Los Angeles with his name on it.
"I didn't know what it was and when I opened it I found this," said Walton, holding an official Spalding NBA coaches notepad holder.
|These days, Luke Walton sits with the other coaches on the bench and reviews plays from his notepad like an assistant coach.|
Walton shakes his head as he puts the binder back in his locker. It's the next step in Walton's temporary transition from player to an assistant coach.
"He's not an assistant coach; he's an aide to me right now," said Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
Either way, Walton, who wears a suit, sits with the other coaches on the bench and gets up with them during timeouts and reviews plays from his notepad looks like an assistant coach these days.
"He's keeping a running score, which means he has to tally every position -- 15-foot jump shot from the pinch post, turnover, fast break," Jackson said. "His penmanship is gaining ground but we're asking him to attend the coaches' breakfast in the morning to explain some of his initials."
While Walton doesn't consider himself a morning person, he doesn't mind explaining his running play-by-play, even though he admits he's not always paying attention to the action on the court.
"If I miss a play, I'll just make something up, like JP jump shot," he said, while nudging Josh Powell.
Walton is hoping his coaching, er, aiding days will stop once the team returns to Los Angeles. Walton, who has only played in 24 games this season while battling a pinched nerve in his lower back, says he is feeling better and is targeting the Lakers' home game against the Spurs on Sunday for his return.
He stopped short of guaranteeing his return on that date, saying he felt great before wincing and grabbing his lower back as he got up to practice.
"Maybe I spoke too soon," he said. "I'm feeling better though."
Andrew Bynum, who is still recovering from a strained left Achilles tendon, has also targeted April 4 for his return but Jackson is no hurry to rush either player back as long as they are healthy for the playoffs.
"We're optimistic [Bynum] will be able to play when we come back to L.A. at some point," Jackson said. "Luke, we'd like him to come back in April and be ready for the playoffs."
With Cleveland holding a four-game lead on the Lakers for the best record in the NBA and with the Lakers holding a six-game lead on the Nuggets for the best record in the Western Conference, there doesn't seem to be much for the Lakers to play for heading into the final nine games of the regular season.
Maybe that's why Jackson is hoping the Lakers will at least be motivated win six of their last nine games to get to the 60-win mark this season.
"It's a number but it's a distinction in this game," Jackson said. "Fifty used to be the number everyone pointed towards, maybe 55, it was unreachable to get to 60. It wasn't really possibility when I was playing because of the travel schedule and the way we traveled but now there's a chance and this team has some pride in themselves and I think they want to do it."
When asked if winning 60 games was important to him or the Lakers, Kobe Bryant shrugged his shoulders "How many wins do we have right now?"
You're 54-19. (By the way, Bryant joined Ron Artest as the second player in as many days to ask what the team's record was after the game).
"Sure," he said. "We have nine games left. It's always a good goal to have. To win 60 games in the NBA is not an easy thing to do. It's a significant accomplishment."
If the Lakers do reach the 60-win plateau they would be the first Lakers team to win at least 60 games in back-to-back seasons since the Lakers won 60-plus four seasons in a row from 1984-85 to 1987-88, winning three NBA championships during that time.
"I think we're in a good position" Pau Gasol said. "We're in the same position we were in pretty much last year and I like the ending that we had last year."
It seems the comparisons between Artest and Trevor Ariza will continue at least through the playoffs this season and Artest may never get rid of the constant comparisons to Ariza until the Lakers win a championship. As the sole new player on the Lakers, who essentially swapped Artest for Ariza in Houston, a common perception is if the Lakers fall in the postseason much of the blame will fall on Artest.
"I suppose you can always say that but it doesn't boil down to that individual thing," Jackson said. "A lot of people forget that most of the season last year we had Luke [Walton] starting at times, we had [Vladimir] Radmanovic starting at times and Trevor always wanted to come off the bench. We liked that role for him because he gave our team a big punch off the bench but there came a time when injuries and the trade to Radmanovic where we made him a starter. So he started late and finished really strong for us and that impact had a big effect on our team."
Jackson said he hoped Artest's critics would realize Ariza was with the Lakers for a year before he became the playmaker he blossomed into during last year's playoffs and it would be unfair to expect Artest to have the same impact so soon.
"Trevor had the luxury, which wasn't really a luxury, of having a stress fracture in his foot, and he sat and watched the team and got all that time to practice when he didn't have to do anything in a game," Jackson said. "So he had almost a year with us before he really got out there and played. The timing is the big thing in this offense, it takes a little timing and knowing how you're going to regulate and move the ball."
Bryant was just one assist shy of a triple-double against the Rockets, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. It would have been the 17th triple-double of his career and his first since Jan. 21 against the Clippers. When Bryant was asked if he was aware he was so close to the feat and wanted to go back into the game to attain it he chuckled.
"Do you know who you're talking to?" he said. "I'm in my 14th year and you think I care about a triple-double?"Arash Markazi is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.