With the Lakers now on the road for an eight-city tour, yesterday's practice saw players fielding many a query about what to take away from their first extended period away from Staples. (It's a topic emerging in this morning's chat.) Beyond the obvious (the Lakers have already played 26 of their Staples contests), fans remember how a vakay from L.A helped define last season's championship road. Late-January saw the Lakers not only go 6-0 despite matches in Boston and Cleveland, but do so largely without the services of Andrew Bynum, who suffered a knee injury against (who else?) Memphis. That strong showing erased the"soft" tag and marked for many the Lakers truly announcing themselves as O'Brien owners-in-waiting. Does the same hold this year as the Lakers head out after playing an obviously successful first half (32-9), but one not always consistent?
Judging by the consensus reaction, not so much.
I asked Phil Jackson where he sees this year's team compared to last seasons, in terms of pre-roadie status. "That's hard to say... One night, we play well for a half. The next night, we play well for twenty minutes. We haven't really strung together three-and-a-half quarters or whatever. I always say there can be a short period of time in the game when you're not on your full function, but you can't have long minutes like that." How much does PJ think injuries and subsequent rotational shuffles have contributed to that inconsistency. "A little bit," before noting how the Lakers have "patched it up pretty good" while dealing with adversity.
Phil typically loathes playing the "injury as any kind of excuse" card (I call him the Bizarro-Mike Dunleavy), so downplaying the significance of bodies shuffled in and out was no surprise. But I personally think it's a big deal. Beyond simply the inherent disadvantage of playing out a Pau Gasol (for example), people underestimate the importance of continuity. It allows players to further familiarize with each other, anticipate actions, create consistent floor combos, develop chemistry, know when minutes will come, etc. The more reps you get doing the same thing (hopefully well), the better you become. Factor in Bynum and Gasol still learning to play together, Ron Artest still learning everything, plus the obvious gains from last 2008-2009's mostly healthy campaign, and fewer injury hiccups would have been nice.
More from Phil about the roadie, including what he considers the most important goal: "Just playing every game for what it's worth, not getting caught up in the details." By "details," PJ seemed to be referring to stuff like the grind of travel, not sleeping in a familiar beds, delayed flights, hostile crowd, etc.
Phil said he "doubted" any questions would be answered after the trip. But that ain't gonna stop people from asking 'em. "There are always questions about our team," said a wry Derek Fisher. What might they be, specifically? "I have no idea," smiled Fish. "It's an eight-game road trip and you go to win every game. I don't see it as something that will 'define' our season, I guess. I don't know. That's for you guys to do, to come up with the questions. For me and for us, it's just business as usual in terms of continuing to search and push and strive for really being the best we can be."
"I don't know if there's questions," said Gasol when asked about the afternoon's theme. "But if you want to on be top, you always have a point to prove or statements to make, otherwise it can be the other way around." Is the statement steeped in "revenge," considering the X-Mas Day thumping at the hands of the James Gang? Pau acknowledged the Lakers "didn't like that at all," but at the same time, a "been there, done that" championship team doesn't dwell on one undoubtedly terrible showing. Instead, it's about playing your best because that's always the goal. "They're a good team, but we want to show them we're the better team," shrugged Gasol.
Another sign the team isn't spending too much time navel gazing over "what does it all mean?" While acknowledging the roadie could provide an indication of where the Lakers are at, Ron Artest still described the purple and gold as "obviously one of the elite teams," meaning his mind is fairly decided to begin with. Of course, he's played half his career on the east coast, so that special brand of hostility doesn't faze him. Some good stuff about the difference between the right coast arenas and Staples, (L.A. crowds have "swag"), the atmosphere at Quicken Loans during the LeBron era ("clowns and circus acts") and why, despite being the newest Lakers, it didn't take long for him to bond.
"As long as you play hard, you're gonna fit right in."
Perhaps more than everyone, Kobe refused to delve into the "psychology" behind a road trip, whether you're talking "bonding" or "making a statement." While Kobe has talked in the past about how a road trip can provides a valuable tool for jelling, people sometimes overstate just how difficult the experience is.
"It's not like you're necessarily out there struggling. We get room service. We got maids. You don't have to clean the room. It's not like we're suffering out there. We're just playing a game in a different environment, that's all."
Finally, mammoth roadies are traditionally the time when PJ hands out books for his players. This year's plan is no different, and PJ jokingly chided us for delaying his trip to the book store. Kobe is notorious for letting the novels gather dust, and I asked if he had any plans to change that. The ball's definitely in The Zen Master's court.
Said Kobe with a grin, "if he gives me something interesting to read, I'll read it. If he gives me some horse @$^% book, I'm not gonna read it."
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