Tuesday, February 22, 2011 Updated: February 23, 7:20 AM ET
Lakers know it's crunch time
By Arash Markazi ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- Damien Wilkins has been around the NBA his whole life. The sixth-year Atlanta Hawks forward is the son of Gerald Wilkins and the nephew of Dominique Wilkins. He is no stranger to pressure and expectations when it comes to basketball.
Yet as he sat next to former Lakers forward Josh Powell in the Hawks' locker room before the Lakers' 104-80 win Tuesday night over the Hawks, he had to smile as Powell was asked about the Lakers' struggles and the concern that has engulfed the city after the team lost three straight games heading into the All-Star break.
"I wish people would freak out when we lost a couple of games," Wilkins said. "They're just like, 'Oh well, go get'em next time.' Are they supposed to go 82-0? My goodness, that don't give us much of a chance tonight."
Kobe Bryant challenged his teammates to step it up in their run to the playoffs, and for at least one game, they responded.
The Hawks didn't have much of a chance against the Lakers, falling behind by as many as 29 points and playing as if they were still on vacation. While the Lakers weren't supposed to go 82-0, many optimistic fans had hoped for a 72-10 or a 62-20 record at season's end. With those records out of reach, the Lakers' focus shifted toward the final 25 games of the regular season and closing the gap between them and the five teams above them in the standings. While Spurs are eight games above them, the Lakers are still within four games of having the second-best record in the league and that appears to be their goal over the last eight weeks of the season.
"We can't afford to keep going down in the standings," Lakers center Andrew Bynum said. "We need to get some wins and get a better position than where we are. We want to have home-court against everyone except for San Antonio."
Suddenly the procrastinating students who have cruised through quizzes and midterms this year have started to realize there isn't much time left in the semester if they want to improve their grade.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson was so concerned about an All-Star hangover and a lackadaisical effort against Atlanta, he called it a "throw away" game before his team even stepped onto the court. The Lakers, however, surprised Jackson and anyone who had watched them lose their last three games by approaching the Atlanta game as if they actually cared about the result. For the first time in weeks, they looked energized, focused and genuinely interested in what was happening on the court.
The Lakers looked nothing like the squad which limped through losses to Orlando, Charlotte and Cleveland on the back end of a seven-game, 13-day trip before the All-Star break. While Jackson and his coaching staff were concerned about the Lakers' first game back from the break, most of the players knew it was time to pick up the intensity after sleep-walking through the end of the road trip.
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"I saw everybody was focused and ready to go," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. "We had a good practice working on the little things and the basics yesterday. The energy was going to be there, we knew that after we ended the road trip. It was just a matter of executing and staying focused."
The Lakers took advantage of their size against Atlanta, outrebounding the Hawks 54-32 and holding them to 33 points in the first half. The Lakers had emphasized the importance of defense heading into the game and played about as well defensively as they have all season -- even if Atlanta's ineffectiveness helped them out.
"It's not like, 'OK, we're back to 100 percent,'" Jackson said. "We've done this before and we know that the next game can be a game that we're not proud of. It's about consistently building a game and having that ability to be purposeful in what we're doing."
Just before the Lakers took the floor to play Atlanta, Magic Johnson tweeted, "Lakers need to make a small trade before the deadline to make a run for the playoffs." This came on the heels of Johnson tweeting the Knicks would win a championship "in a couple years" after trading for Carmelo Anthony.
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It was the type of message the Lakers have heard for the past month heading into Thursday's trade deadline, but Jackson and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said they don't expect the team to make any moves before the deadline and certainly not one that would drastically alter the makeup of the team.
Kobe Bryant called Tuesday night's game a "roll call" game and made sure he talked to the players about the importance of finishing the season strong. If the Lakers are going to win a third straight championship it will have to come from the efforts of the players currently on the team. There won't be any trades for Anthony, Chris Paul or any other proposed trade machine pipe dreams.
"I was just making sure everybody was here," Bryant said. "Emotionally checked in, physically checked in and ready to do their jobs. Everybody on this team has a role and has a job and it's important at this stage in the season to do that."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.