Updated: January 16, 2013, 2:50 PM ET

1. Lakers Living Up To New Expectations

By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- These Los Angeles Lakers have never been above making bold statements, as evidenced by Metta World Peace's preseason name-drop of the 72-win Chicago Bulls and the front office's dismissal of their coach five games into the season, so of course their new coach had to mirror that conviction upon accepting the gig.

"This is not a project," Mike D'Antoni said at his introductory news conference ... all of two months ago, to the date.

The problem with being bold, of course, is times such as these, when the daydream doesn't match up with reality. Just ask Mark Jackson, whose playoff guarantee for the Warriors last season ended with 10 losses over the final 11 games and the offense being funneled through Jeremy Tyler.

Ask the Lakers now, with their record still in the red and L.A. three spots back of the postseason cutoff in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, and, well, the visions of grandeur certainly aren't as grand.

Kobe Bryant
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant dropped 31 points on the Bucks.

Just making the playoffs, at this point, is the only goal at hand.

"Yeah," D'Antoni said with a chuckle Tuesday after the Lakers' convincing 104-88 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at Staples Center. "That would be it."

This coming only a day after Steve Nash admitted to ESPN 710 in Los Angeles that just making the playoffs is now the goal and that "everyone would be lying if we didn't admit to that."

The juggernaut expected to emerge on Figueroa Street is likely long gone, at least for the team dressed in Forum blue. But the Lakers got a glimpse Tuesday of how well things can go.

Just under a brand-new set of expectations.

"It's the best I've felt we've been as a team," said Antawn Jamison after the Lakers pulled away from the Bucks in the fourth quarter to mark the fourth time this season L.A. has strung together a stretch of two wins or more.

"Nobody's worried about minutes; nobody's worried about playing time or shots. We were just going out there and competing, and that's been the difference."

Among other things.

For starters, how about, well, the starters?

Earl Clark started for the second straight game in place of the injured Pau Gasol (concussion), giving the Lakers the type of hybrid forward at the 4 some have said L.A. would be better off with instead of clogging the lane with two 7-footers in Gasol and Dwight Howard.

Clark's results were solid, if unspectacular, as the 24-year-old journeyman finished with six points on 3-for-7 shooting and nine rebounds in 24 minutes, but his presence -- and later Jamison's -- did give the lineup a bit more flexibility. The Lakers opened the game with the 6-foot-10 Clark guarding the dynamic Monta Ellis, Kobe Bryant matching up with point guard Brandon Jennings and all "6-foot-3" of Nash on Bucks forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

More importantly, this provided some much-needed space. Nash finished with fewer than 10 points for the third time since his return in late December but he kept the ball moving, dishing out 11 assists, nine of which came before halftime. Bryant totaled 31 points on 12-for-19 shooting and looked locked in defensively, making good on D'Antoni's Monday promise to utilize the star shooting guard more on that end of the court.

Howard, in particular, thrived. While injuries are likely to keep us from seeing 2010 NBA Finals-era Dwight anytime soon, the center at least looked dominant again against a long but lightweight Bucks frontcourt, finishing with 31 points on 14-for-18 shooting with 16 rebounds and four blocks.

"I think he keeps getting stronger. He keeps getting better," D'Antoni said. "Obviously, he's what we were missing, when he was out."

Said Jamison: "It's tough when you have the big man rolling down the middle like that."

Nash was quick to note that Gasol can still thrive in D'Antoni's space-friendly system, and under normal circumstances, he's probably right; Gasol is still the most skilled big man in the NBA, and it's hard, even in these most trying times, to say he couldn't find some way to make it work.

But "normal" isn't going to happen this season for the Lakers.

The team has dealt with an injury bug on a Biblical-plague level, with three of the team's four stars missing time in the early going. And things aren't getting any better. Jordan Hill is out for the rest of the season. Steve Blake still has no timetable for his return after an abdomen injury. And while Gasol could return Thursday in a showdown with the Heat in L.A., it's hard to imagine the Lakers getting anything close to his value on the trade market given his recent dip in production.

So, from here on out, the only way for the Lakers to reach that playoff goal is for the Lakers to be better at being the Lakers.

That, of course, won't be easy.

While the Lakers' porous defense, ranked 21st in the league in efficiency, kept the equally average Bucks offense, ranked 25th in efficiency, to just 88 points, the smaller lineup did open the door for 21 offensive rebounds.

And although D'Antoni was able to keep all of his starters to fewer than 40 minutes except for Howard, who logged 40 exactly, the stark drop-off to the reserves is made clear with one glimpse at the team's plus-minus -- all the starters were in the plus, while all the reserves were either at zero or in the minus.

But with Howard rolling and the defense digging in a bit, the Lakers did look like a playoff team, at least for one night.

And at this point, that's the best they can hope for.

"[Time] is important, to make up some ground, one," Nash said. "And two, we need to find some momentum and improvement to get on a roll a little bit to make the playoffs and play with some confidence."

Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JustinVerrier.

Dimes past: Dec. 30 | 31 | Jan. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4-5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-12 | 13 | 14

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