Monday, January 3, 2011 Updated: January 4, 5:43 PM ET
Lakers get back to basics
By Dave McMenamin ESPNLosAngeles.com
There's a scene in the charming yet forgettable 1994 Disney movie, "Angels in the Outfield," when the ragtag baseball team is reeling from pathetic performances. In walks the manager, played by Danny Glover, to the postgame clubhouse and he informs the players to report to the field early the next day to work on fundamentals.
"Fundamentals, in the middle of the season?!" one veteran incredulously asks.
Amazingly enough, 34 games into the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in the same predicament as those fictional Angels.
And while Hollywood "It" guy Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who co-starred in the movie as an early teen) could very well show up at Staples Center in courtside seats, he won't be flapping his arms signaling the time for some heavenly intervention from Christopher Lloyd like he did to save that bunch from Anaheim.
Sometimes a dedication to fundamentals can snap a struggling team back on track.
Nope, the only way the Lakers can bust out of their current slump that includes four losses in their past six games, three losses in their past four home games and four losses in a row by a margin of 15 or more, is to get back to basics.
So, at Monday's practice, their last chance to breathe before beginning a six-games-in-nine-days stretch, the practice schedule sitting on the table at center court was from Sept. 26, 2010 -- their second practice of the preseason. And they ran until it hurt to breathe.
They lined up for a training camp drill in which the whole team has to complete 82 full-court layups in two minutes. It's a constant-motion exercise that tests physical as well as mental stamina because the drill allows for only a couple missed layups as a team before the 82 becomes an unreachable goal.
The Lakers ran it six times Monday before finally reaching the mark.
If at first you don't succeed, try and try and try and try and try and try again.
"We got a lot of running in today, I don't know if we were doing that for conditioning or punishment, but hopefully it worked," Lamar Odom said.
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You could say that the team really hit the reset button on the season three games ago when Andrew Bynum made his return to the starting lineup against New Orleans. Things were going smoothly with two straight wins against the Hornets and the Sixers before there was another setback against Memphis.
If the season was a Nintendo game, to keep with the 1994 references, hitting the reset button was not enough. It was time to pop the game out of the console, shake the dust off of it and start all over.
"We're changing some things, but we believe it will make us better," Kobe Bryant said. "It's like changing your shot or changing your golf swing. If you change your swing it takes a little while to get it back in sync, but when you do you're a better player."
What they're changing primarily is their approach.
Simple concepts such as running the offense properly, talking on defense to ensure proper rotations, moving to the ball when receiving a pass, and following your shot by crashing the boards are usually imparted by the time the preseason rolls around, not the New Year. But something had to be done with 48 regular season games remaining and it's a better plan to go back to square one than continue to sweep problems under the rug.
"They say when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging," Bryant said after the Grizzlies loss. "In basketball you can't do that [expletive], you just got to keep on playing and the hole gets deeper and deeper sometimes."
Now that they've recognized where they're at, the idea is to start taking some of that dirt and forming it into building blocks.
The Lakers are tied with the Utah Jazz for the third best record in the Western Conference and trail the frontrunning San Antonio Spurs by 6.5 games. But their upcoming schedule, with six of their next eight games against teams with sub -.500 records (beginning with a back-to-back against the 11-22 Detroit Pistons on Tuesday and the 14-18 Suns on Wednesday), is a chance to not only climb out of the hole they're in, but climb back up the standings.
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"If we do the small things -- take care of the ball, play team defense -- we're going to give ourselves a pretty good chance to win," Odom said. "If we don't do those things, we'll lose games that we should win and we'll be up and down, up and down, up and down."
One of the most overused maxims in sports is take it one game at a time, but Phil Jackson has always further focused that message, preaching to his players to take it quarter by quarter and, even more specifically, timeout to timeout. By concentrating on winning enough 2-3 minute-long spurts in a game, you'll end up winning whole games.
Lakers co-captain Derek Fisher, a 15-year veteran, is committed to taking it even further, buckling down possession by possession.
"It seems really big right now, but we just have to start plugging away at things one at a time," Fisher said. "Make a few more free throws, get a couple more rebounds, get one or two more defensive stops, make one or two more shots and when you combine all those things together, you start to see some things turn around."
Fundamentals, in the middle of the season.
It just may get the Lakers to the Promised Land.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.