In a vacuum, the 33-15 record isn't all that worrisome. It gives the Lakers a winning percentage (.688) that nearly matches last season's mark (.695), and we know how that movie ended.
Of course, the Lakers neither live nor play in a vacuum (fortunately for season-ticket holders), and in context the record leaves far more room for concern. Remove the 8-0 start, and L.A. is a still-good-but-hardly-elite 25-15, and in the very short term have lost four of seven. More important, the Lakers have now played six games against teams in the NBA's top six and lost five of them (a home win over Chicago being the lone outlier). Four of the losses (Dallas, San Antonio, Miami and Boston) were by nine or more.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant struggled mightily in the first meeting with San Antonio. If the Lakers are to win Thursday, he'll have to be better.
Moreover, matching last year's record won't yield last year's playoff seeding, because the rest of the league is better. The Lakers will almost certainly finish no better than a second seed in the West, and could very well finish behind two, three or even four teams in the East. That means road playoff series, which means the Lakers can't just be as good as last year, but will have to be better.
At least they don't have to worry about looking past games, anymore, because the schedule doesn't provide many more cupcakes to blow off. In the next nine games before the All-Star break, the Lakers will play six teams currently at or well above .500, plus Houston (who beat L.A. last month) and in Charlotte (where they historically struggle). If it takes quality opponents to help raise the Lakers' level, they'll get plenty of opportunities to do so between now and the end of February.
And this week, as well. Here's how it stacks up ...
GAME OF THE WEEK
Thursday vs. San Antonio, 7:30 p.m. PT
There's a certain sense of deja vu working here. The first time these teams met, the Lakers were coming off a high-profile loss (Christmas Day vs. Miami), seemed out of sorts (don't forget the Milwaukee game before the Miami game), and had a chance stick it to the naysayers with a solid performance deep in the heart of Texas. A more-lopsided-than-the-score 15-point-loss later, fair to say the Lakers left the sayers still saying nay. This time, the Lakers will have come off two losses (Sacto and Boston) covering the spectrum of disappointing, plus whatever happens Tuesday against the Rockets.
With a well-played game, the Lakers can bring down the local temperature to more moderate levels. With a loss, questions about whether they're good enough to make up the gap between where they are and where they need to be will only get louder and more frequent.
In the first matchup, Kobe Bryant was flat out awful, shooting eight-of-27 from the floor including bricks on 18 of his final 22 shots. There was some hope, though. In the second quarter, the Lakers busted out a balanced attack and used ball and player movement to find holes in a San Antonio defense that, despite some talk about how Gregg Popovich has abandoned that end of the floor, is still pretty good, at least from an efficiency standpoint. (This to go with an offense running at an elite level.)
The Lakers effectively attacked San Antonio inside, forcing fouls from the Spurs to the point L.A. went to the line nine times. It was easily their most effective stretch over the course of the game -- not that there were many other choices -- and perhaps provides a blueprint for Thursday's game. Add in a Bryant shooting the ball far more efficiently now than then, and it's a mistake to assume the Lakers are doomed to get rolled.
Of course, it's also a mistake to assume they'll elevate their game and play like champs, too.
Tuesday vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m. PT
If there's a team I misjudged before the season, it was Houston. I made my predictions based on a Yao-having team, but either way, at five games under .500, the Rockets are among the more disappointing teams in the league. The Lakers won the season opener thanks to big games from Pau Gasol and big contributions from the bench, but lost on Houston's floor in December by 10, the fourth in the four game losing streak.
The Rockets, who have made a few lineup changes (including installing Kyle Lowry as the starting point guard) score, move the ball well. What they don't do is defend, Very uncharacteristic of Rick Adelman's Houston teams, but it helps explain their record, and why they've lost four-of-six heading into Tuesday's game.
Saturday at New Orleans, 5 p.m. PT
Here's a good team the Lakers have handled well. First, L.A. went into New Orleans Dec. 29th on the heels of the San Antonio debacle, played with intensity and unity, and won by 15. It was the first game with Andrew Bynum back in the starting lineup, where he produced 18 points. Lamar Odom, back to his sixth man duties, had 24. As a team, the Lakers shot almost 59 percent from the floor.
The rematch a week or so later at Staples was closer, but equally satisfying. Kobe had 25/4, while Gasol put up a very efficient 21/13/7. In both games, the Lakers did reasonable work preventing Chris Paul from going bonkers, helping explain the end result.
The third go-round marks the start of a tough seven-game, pre-All-Star roadie. It'll be important to get things off on the right foot, because with games following in Memphis, Boston, New York and Orlando, it doesn't get any easier.