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Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Lakers: Reality of final push sets in

By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Mike D'Antoni
Forget the 10 opponents the Lakers face for a shot at the postseason. To coach Mike D'Antoni's way of thinking, it's the Lakers against themselves that will determine their fate.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Start the countdown. There are 10 games left on the schedule for this sometimes insufferable, yet still salvageable Los Angeles Lakers season.

Four road games (or three if you don't count the one in L.A. against the Clippers with the Staples Center lights up). Six home games. Five games against teams above .500. Five games against teams below.

And none of those other teams matter, if you ask Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni.

"I think it's us playing against the Lakers," D'Antoni said before L.A. eked out a 120-117 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, letting a 15-point fourth-quarter lead get cut all the way to two. "We got to do what we do."

"Most of the time that will be enough," he said, "but we're just having a hard time finding consistency and keeping the ball moving and keeping defensive mental intensity all the time. That's going to be our key all the time. When we walk on the floor it's, 'OK, Lakers, who are you?'"

Pau Gasol
"We have to get into the playoff mind-set, the sooner the better," Pau Gasol said.
Great question.

Who are the Lakers with 10 games remaining?

A group to cast off as first-round fodder for the likes of the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder? A group that has suffered far too many injuries (the latest being Metta World Peace, out at least six weeks following surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee) to be considered a contender? A group whose "championship" cry to end its huddles truly is laughable, as D'Antoni said just last week?

Or are they something different?

Are they a team that has the game's most dominant big man in Dwight Howard getting better by the day, as evidenced by his 25 points, 16 rebounds, five steals and five blocks against the Wolves? Are they a team that still has an all-time great in Kobe Bryant jamming the window open to squeeze one last run out of his prime? Are they a team with a coach and two-time MVP at point guard with championship ambitions to legitimize the ringless run they had in Phoenix together before? A team on a mission ever since its legendary owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, died?

The narrative can be stretched, twisted, turned around to fit either identity.

But the beauty of where the Lakers stand now -- with a little less than a month remaining in the season and clutching a one-game lead on the eighth and final playoff spot in the West -- is that they can write the only part of this year's story that will matter in the long run.

"Every team can pretty much say that about themselves," Bryant said when told about D'Antoni's pregame claim. "You really try to perfect what you do and improve upon what you do."

But not every team can reach the level of perfection like the Lakers did in the third quarter Wednesday, scoring a season-high 41 points in the period while shooting 18-for-25 from the field (72.0 percent) as a team.

And few teams can claim the level of improvement the Lakers have reached, going from eight games under .500 in late January to two games above it two months later, all while dealing with injuries every step of the way.

So now, they work on themselves.

"We have to get into the playoff mindset, the sooner the better," Pau Gasol said. "If we make the playoffs, we're going to start on the road and we're going to have to start well if we want to stay alive and move on. So we have to get in that mindset as soon as possible."

How is Thursday for soon? The Lakers play the second night of a back-to-back in Milwaukee. L.A. has had 14 back-to-backs this season and have yet to go 2-0 in any of them. The Bucks game is their 15th chance, and it's on the road, where L.A. will have to thrive in the playoffs if it wants to advance at all. Start with a win there. Prove something.

Get Gasol continuing to round into shape like he did Wednesday, when he had 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field in 37 minutes after averaging just 5.5 points on 27.8 percent shooting in 21.5 minutes during his first two games back from a foot injury.

Cut down on turnovers and get back on defense -- not just like L.A. did in the second half against the Wolves with just six miscues after the break following 15 in the first two quarters, but to do it for a whole game. Then for two whole games. Then for 10 whole games.

Settle in the rotation with Jodie Meeks as the new starter in place of World Peace and with Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake and Earl Clark creating the new bench trio.

Keep Steve Nash involved on the ball, so he can dish out eight assists like he did Wednesday. And off the ball, too, so Bryant can be the one creating (seven assists for Kobe) and Nash can be the one shooting (he had 16 points on 4-for-7 shooting, including two 3-pointers).

Play with energy from the tip. Dig in on defense. Execute proper rotations. Share the basketball.

Do all that for 10 games, then answer D'Antoni at the end of the season when he asks, "OK, Lakers, who are you?"