Commentary

Lakers must prove it on road

A three-game win streak is nice, but L.A.'s identity will be defined by long trip

Updated: January 30, 2013, 3:47 AM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Through the first 45 games of the season, the Los Angeles Lakers have changed their identity more often than an awards-show host changes his or her wardrobe.

First, they were the juggernaut full of Hall of Famers hell-bent on returning the title to L.A.

Then they were the group going through growing pains with an 0-8 preseason and a 1-4 record out of the gate.

Then a rudderless boat without a captain after Mike Brown was fired and Phil Jackson was bypassed.

Then an inconsistent bunch waiting for salvation in the form of the return of Steve Nash from injury to run the stuff new coach Mike D'Antoni wanted.

Then a team seemingly on track by Christmas before next looking like a bunch of mismatched parts that just couldn't find a way to win for most of January.

[+] EnlargeDwight Howard
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsDwight Howard had a team-high 24 points Tuesday, but the Lakers' biggest test is their upcoming 12-day trip.

Now? They're the team that already hit rock bottom and has won three games in a row.

Next? They'll see if they can continue the pass-happy, defense-energized persona they've assumed by testing it with a seven-game, 12-day road trip. If they come out of the trip having done the same things and played the same way, they can ride that identity through the regular season straight into the playoffs.

If they stumble and their 5-15 road record to this point gets even worse, their next identity could be determined by a major trade as a desperate attempt to find a winning mix.

"In order for us to get to where we need to get to, we're going to have to win on the road," said Antawn Jamison, whose individual season -- from major minutes to DNPs to 16 points off the bench in Wednesday's 111-106 win over the New Orleans Hornets -- has been a microcosm of the Lakers' season. "This is pretty much the most important road trip for us, the most important stretch of the season for us. We don't have another extra 15 to 20 games to get things going. In order for us to finally be the team that we need to be and finally turn this thing around, it has to be numerous wins on the road."

Just how numerous? Even with their three-game winning streak, L.A. is still just 20-25 overall, four games behind No. 8 Houston. The Lakers can't be satisfied with going 4-3 on the trip, even if that would be drastically better than their .250 winning percentage away from Staples Center so far. It has to be 5-2, 6-1 or even ...

"My expectations right now, and I don't want to sound crazy ... I think we can win every game, always," D'Antoni said after the Hornets win, in which the Lakers had 34 assists on 39 baskets and held their third straight opponent to sub-44 percent shooting from the field. "With the group that we have, you play like this, you can win every game."

Let's not forget where the Lakers were just less than two weeks ago when they went out on the road on the heels of two wins against Milwaukee and Cleveland and a nip-and-tuck loss to the world-champion Miami Heat and bottomed out with an 0-3 trip.

To legitimize the almost overnight transformation the team has shown since that air-it-out meeting in Memphis, they have to prove it in Phoenix, in Minnesota, in Detroit, in Brooklyn, in Boston, in Charlotte and in Miami.

"At some point, we have to be a good road team if we're going to make the playoffs," Steve Nash said. "We have to win at home and on the road. So, it doesn't matter how they come. We're playing better basketball and we have to go out on the road and prove it."

There is still plenty to prove. For as good as the Lakers should feel about their three-game winning streak, the fact is they almost lost to a 15-30 Hornets team by twice blowing an 18-point lead. And all that team camaraderie they built up might have been compromised by D'Antoni's benching Pau Gasol in the fourth quarter, leading to Gasol's griping about it in the locker room afterward.

Maybe the seven-city setting will help mend that. Maybe it will only isolate guys once again.

"The road is really a good place to bond together as a group even more," said Kobe Bryant, who will be challenged to keep up his distributing ways after 11 more assists Tuesday brought his three-game total to 39 -- the highest three-game stretch for assists in his 17-year career. "It's an environment where everybody is rooting against you. It's pretty much us against the world."

Is now the time for a team that has stumbled so much already this season to really want to be taking on a challenge like this?

"You just got to go out there and see what you got," Bryant said. "It's not something that I'm worried about. It's not something that makes me nervous. You got to go out there and see what you got."

This road trip will tell them either they've finally got an identity that will stick, or they have a team that is still searching for something it will never find.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com