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Sunday, January 13, 2013
Updated: January 14, 3:15 AM ET
Lakers still have plenty to prove

By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers ended their six-game losing streak by beating a 9-29 Cleveland Cavaliers team that played Luke Walton for 24 minutes at Staples Center on Sunday.

As the late Chris Farley playing the motivational speaker Matt Foley would say, "Whoop-de-freaking-doo!"

The Lakers could use a continued dose of Farley/Foley motivation because the hole they've dug for themselves should be seen just as daunting after beating the Cavs as it did before the teams played Sunday.

The reality of their situation is that even with the victory, things aren't so rosy.

The Lakers are five games under .500, at 16-21. They're in 11th place in the Western Conference and four games behind the No. 8-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. They're 5-12 on the road with 10 of their next 15 games coming away from Staples Center against the likes of Memphis, Brooklyn and Miami. And despite holding Cleveland to 93 points on 41.1 percent shooting, that was against the second-worst offense in the league, so it doesn't magically erase the fact that eight of the Lakers' past 10 opponents coming into Sunday crossed the 100-point threshold against them.

Howard-Bryant
Dwight Howard, left, showed no ill effects from his shoulder injury, scoring 22 points Sunday. Kobe Bryant had 23 for the Lakers.

You could say that's looking at the glass half empty, or you could say the Lakers' glass is actually overflowing with Problem Juice.

Yet there are 45 games left, and if Dwight Howard (22 points on 9-for-11 shooting and 14 rebounds) can show up the way he did for the bulk of those games and not have the torn labrum in his right shoulder linger, it would be wrong not to say they have a chance.

Just don't be fooled and think for a minute that because the Lakers stopped the bleeding against the Cavs that it's going to all of the sudden get any easier for them.

"I don't want to overdo it and say, 'Oh yeah, [we're back],' and I don't want to undersell it," Steve Nash said. "I think we realize it's important to make up that ground now. We came out tonight, we were very professional and I thought showed some improvement."

For L.A. to realistically achieve its goal of making a playoff push, the Lakers will have to not trip up against the bottom dwellers of the NBA the rest of the way. They'll have to take care of their home court. They'll have to find a way to be at least .500 on the road. And they'll have to actually win some games against teams that are better than they are. (They are coming off an 0-5 stretch against teams above them in the standings.)

Along the way, they'll have to figure out how to reintegrate Pau Gasol to the lineup when he returns from a concussion (or should we just say "integrate" considering how the start to his season has gone), continue to strike a balance between Howard and Kobe Bryant on the offensive end and, quite simply, get better at playing basketball. Twenty-two turnovers against the Cavs didn't kill them, but against a score of other teams it will -- no way a team like Miami gets 95 shots to the Lakers' 69 shots, as Cleveland did Sunday, and goes on to lose.

Maybe coach Mike D'Antoni was just doing whatever he could to ease the Lakers' worries by declaring that the "season starts Sunday" after the loss to Oklahoma City on Friday, thus making the Lakers 1-0 by his book, but that's just delusional thinking. Plus, didn't the Lakers' season unofficially restart once already this season when Nash came back from his leg injury?

No, the hill is still there to be climbed, but D'Antoni is right that dwelling on the past won't help them at this point.

"You almost have to not think about what went on prior," Bryant said. "It's something I talked to the guys about. You just have to take it a game at a time and a day at a time. And think about the end result and the challenge that's in front of us."

While Bryant and D'Antoni were on the same page about that, another thing Bryant said after the game went against a declaration by Nash.

"It's not really about the shots everybody takes; you just have to play for each other," Bryant said. "That's really the big key. The problem with playing in Los Angeles is there's so much attention that people concentrate on individuals and a lot of times it can trickle down to everybody else on the team. Everybody starts thinking about themselves and it can't be like that. You can't be like that. You can't think about yourselves. You have to think about what we are doing as a group."

Sounds good, but then Nash was saying this about Howard:

"He's the anchor to the team," Nash said, openly bestowing pecking order status on him. "When he plays with energy, plays hard defensively, we're a different team. The only way for us to realize our aspirations is if he is that presence defensively."

While Howard spent most of his postgame remarks complimenting the team's collective defensive effort, when he was told about what Nash said, he gobbled it up.

"It is my role," Howard said. "On both ends. To help other guys get open and on the defensive end play strong, communicating and talking and telling guys where they need to be. I understand that they need me on the floor, they need me focused every night for us to win."

What did the Cleveland win change for the Lakers? It's still too early to tell.