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Sunday, January 27, 2013
Have the Lakers found their groove?

By Ramona Shelburne

LOS ANGELES -- They sent purple and gold streamers down from the rafters in the final seconds of the Los Angeles Lakers' 105-96 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.

Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard found each other near halfcourt for a long embrace. Pau Gasol looked up to the heavens, let out a sigh that was part relief, part joy and all kinds of bottled up frustration and emotion.

Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard might finally have something to celebrate.

The sellout crowd roared with approval, then stuck around a little longer than usual, as if the Lakers' beleaguered fans weren't quite sure what to make of this modest two-game winning streak just yet.

Is this it? Is it safe to jump back on board with the Lakers again? Have they finally found something to build on? A direction? An identity?

Or is this just another glimmer of false, frustrating hope?

"I just looked down [at the stat sheet] and we're 19-25 and just upset my stomach," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I'm happy about how we're playing right now, but like I said we got a big road trip coming up. … That will be the telling tell. If we can continue with this energy and this type of playing then, yes, I'll be real excited."

The Lakers' road back from what has so far been one of the worst flops in modern professional sports history will be a long one. Even if they truly are trending upward now, there will still be fits and starts, missteps and setbacks along the way.

At times, describing their recovery will sound a lot like financial commentators did back in 2008-09 when trying to pinpoint exactly when the United States economy hit rock bottom.

Is this it? Did it happen a few weeks ago? Can something else go wrong? Is there further to fall?

Those questions can be answered conclusively only in hindsight. Right now the Lakers and their fans have to go on gut feel and faith.

But if this the start of the recovery, if that 0-3 road trip and emotional bloodletting before the game in Memphis last Wednesday really was rock bottom, it will have been because the Lakers finally got up in each other's faces and got real.

Real about what's gone wrong. Real about what needs to change. Real about just how embarrassing this season has been for a franchise and ownership group that has laid out a small fortune to field a championship team and gotten pennies on the dollar thus far for its investment.

"I think guys were just worried too much about their own situations and their own issues," Gasol said bluntly, when asked what has changed since the air-it-out team meeting in Memphis. "When you start doing that, it takes away from the team.

"With the personnel we have, we have to understand that our numbers and our stats are going to be lowered. There's a certain level of compromise and commitment that we all need to accept. Once we do that, things will work out well."

Why did it take so long for the Lakers to accept that?

"It just didn't happen. I wish it would have," Dwight Howard said. "It took us to fall on our head and run into a couple roadblocks for us to see it."

It would be easy to point to Kobe Bryant's recent play and say that was the tweak the Lakers needed. That's part of it. A large part of it.

"When the leader of your team is unselfish like that, when he sets a tone like that, it's contagious," Gasol said. "And it keeps us doing the right thing out there."

But the truth is they've all bent.

D'Antoni has given ground on the tempo he wants the Lakers to play. They will now be what Howard calls an "opportunity fast-break team" that tries to spread the floor as D'Antoni likes in the half court, but only runs out on the break when it's there.

If you've followed D'Antoni's career, you know how difficult of a concession that is for him to make. Sort of like Bryant shifting his focus from scoring to facilitating … or Nash becoming more of a spot-up shooter … or Gasol playing out of the high post instead of with his back to the basket … Howard sacrificing offense for defense.

You get the point: It wasn't someone that had to give. It was all of them.

"We all have to do what we have to do to win," Howard said. "Sometimes we have to sacrifice a little bit of ourselves for the team."

It sounded great after what was probably the Lakers' best win of the season. But we've heard talk like this before. Talk of sacrifice and staying together and not letting the pressure to be great derail the process of simply becoming a good team.

It was just that, though. Talk.

It's too soon to say if this change will stick. If these Lakers are in a true recovery just yet or if a new low is around the corner.

Sunday was a good day. This was a good weekend. They all gave a little. They got back more than they gave.

"I'm definitely not going to sit here and say, "OK, we've arrived now,'" Nash said. "But it's starting to look more like it could look."