Can Lakers save season with trip?
Grammy trip started poorly, but the Lakers look to use the rest to fuel turnaround
TORONTO -- If the Los Angeles Lakers' star-crossed 2012-13 season taught us anything, it's that as bleak as it might ever seem, there could always be a beam of light coming around the corner.
The Lakers were 17-24 at the midway point of last season, hitting rock bottom with a loss in Chicago, their third defeat in a row and ninth out of 11 games at the time. It was a loss that was as ugly as it gets, from Mike D'Antoni benching Pau Gasol to start it and Dwight Howard parading around the locker room with a stat sheet after it, pointing to his five shot attempts (ignoring his four turnovers, five fouls and 4-for-8 mark from the foul line, of course).
It was a make-or-break point for the Lakers, and they turned it all around following a team meeting in Memphis, Tenn., two days later, finishing the second half of the season 28-13.
The Lakers might have just had their "come-to-Jesus moment" (the term Phil Jackson used last season) a little bit earlier this season.
L.A. hits the season's halfway mark at 16-25, a game behind last season's record but having already been through the air-it-out meeting process in Boston on Friday and having already put an end to the worst stretch of their season.
The Lakers have now won two games in a row since that discussion in Boston, beating the Celtics after falling down by 13 points in the second quarter and taking care of the Toronto Raptors 112-106 on Sunday after being down 17 points in the third quarter.
It all came to a head this time around with a 121-114 loss to the Phoenix Suns to start their current seven-game road trip. The loss to the Suns was the Lakers' sixth in a row and 12th in their past 13 games to drop them 11 games under .500. With six more games on the docket away from Staples Center at that point, it was totally conceivable that the Lakers would return home 15 games under .500 with nothing left to play for all season, especially with the way the Suns loss went down -- Nick Young being ejected when no teammates came to his side during a shoving match.
But L.A. cleared the air. It stopped the bleeding. It persevered. Now, can the Lakers save the season?
"We dug ourselves a big hole, but the big thing is we're playing hard," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Guys are enjoying it. They're bonding together, and some guys are getting better."
John Mayer once said that "people thinking I'm hot is proof that guitar is the ultimate airbrush," and stringing together a win streak in the NBA works the same way. Once the Lakers were able to get a gasp of air with that Celtics win, the oxygen went straight to their heads and changed their way of thinking.
Young scored 15 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter of the Raptors game to make his mark on the winning streak after he could only watch the Celtics win from his hotel room while serving a one-game suspension. The mini-win streak had him so amped that he admitted that he and Wesley Johnson told each other that the Lakers should finish their road trip with a 5-2 record "at least," meaning they aren't considering running the table against the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and New York Knicks impossible.
"Winning helps," D'Antoni said. "Winning will jazz everybody up. You can push them a little harder when you're winning, and we'll do that."
There are still warts to this purple-and-gold frog they're hoping to turn into a prince, of course. The Lakers might have solved their turnover riddle against the Raptors -- coughing up only 10, leading to 13 Toronto points -- but they were pounded on the glass 47-30 and gave up 52 points in the paint.
"We're just awful on the boards, and we're awful getting back and we're awful, sometimes, sorting things out," said D'Antoni, giving a dose of Debbie Downer, perhaps, to prove that there's a long way to go. "We're not real good about certain instinctual basketball plays."
The desperation is still needed, and the Lakers' situation is still a tough one, with Xavier Henry, Steve Blake, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Jordan Farmar out of the lineup. But, then again, Henry could be cleared as soon as Monday in Chicago or Tuesday in Miami … Blake practiced 5-on-0 drills Saturday … Nash is going through a final training session in Vancouver, British Columbia, to try to get back … Bryant vowed to return this season and plans to get re-evaluated in early February … Farmar's hamstring has already healed enough to allow him to get back to shooting drills.
Maybe, just maybe, a heavy dose of optimism is all the Lakers need to weather the storm in the meantime. Turnarounds can happen in this league. D'Antoni was reluctant to compare this season's situation to last season's, saying, "we got a bigger hole to get out of with maybe less players," but how about comparing the Lakers to the Raptors team they just beat? Toronto was 6-12 to start the season and then won 14 out of 20 before L.A. came in and snapped its six-game home winning streak Sunday.
"I'm just really proud of the guys for stepping up, bringing the effort, bringing the intensity, bringing the focus and not wanting to give up," Gasol said. "That's what we need to continue to do on a consistent basis and not worry about all the things that are against us right now. Just play ball and compete."
This is exactly what Gasol has been doing himself, scoring 20 or more points in seven of the Lakers' nine games since the calendar turned to 2014 and grabbing 10 or more rebounds in six of those contests.
"Pau's balling," said Young, beaming. "He's doing what he do."
What was first looked at as the Grammy trip that would most likely be the "death knell" (to borrow another phrase from Jackson) to any hope for the Lakers' season suddenly has the team looking up at 2-1 through its first three games.
"I guess this trip was needed for just bringing us more together," Young said.
Premature celebration? Maybe. But Young checked himself.
"Can't get relaxed. Can't sit back," he said. "It's 41 more games to go."