Lakers searching for mental toughness

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers have already made a habit of blowing big leads during their uneven 3-4 start to the season. They were up 15 on San Antonio, only to lose by six; up 21 on Atlanta, only to win by just two; and up 19 on Houston this week, only to squeeze out a one-point victory thanks to a game-winning 3 by Steve Blake.

Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni thinks the trend has more to do with his team’s minds than their bodies.

“Just keep telling them and give them a shot of mental toughness,” D’Antoni said after shootaround Sunday in advance of the Lakers' game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. “There's no secret formula. We just have to talk about it and do it. If they want to have a special season, then they have to do it.”

Pau Gasol was supposed to be the Lakers’ individual player in line for a special season with Kobe Bryant sidelined, Dwight Howard off to Houston and both D’Antoni and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak predicting a return to All-Star form for Gasol, who hasn’t made the February showcase since 2011.

Instead, his play has personified the Lakers’ failure to meet expectations so far as his averages of 12 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 35.2 percent shooting are actually worse overall than his 13.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 46.6 percent shooting a season ago.

“We’ve definitely been very inconsistent for the most part,” Gasol said. “We have to find that consistency. I think that’s hopefully going to come with more games. We can’t make a habit out of it, out of ‘We’re going to be up some and then they’re going to make a run and we’re going to be fighting for our lives.’ So hopefully we’ll find that mental toughness consistently and be focused for 48 minutes, don’t have those letdowns and just figure it out a little better.”

For his part, to shake off the 4-for-22 shooting slump he has been mired in the last two games, Gasol tried to bolster both his mental and physical toughness by staying around for 45 minutes of training after shootaround.

“You just try to focus harder, prepare mentally and physically,” Gasol said. “Maybe do a little extra. I got a little work out in the weight room. I’m going to do some extra shooting [Sunday]. Just shake it off. Today is a new day, a new game and I want to play better. I want to play well for my team.”

One facet of the team that has undoubtedly played well for the Lakers so far is the bench. L.A.’s reserves lead the league in scoring at 57.8 points per game and have accounted for 57.5 percent of the total offense (347 of 603 points) through the first seven games.

“It doesn't mean a whole lot other than the bench is playing really well and we got to get the starters geared up a little bit,” said D’Antoni.

The Lakers’ bench scored a franchise-record 76 points in their opening-night victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, and their production has remained steady. The Lakers’ leading scorer has come from the bench four times this season.

“Mike goes with the guys [who] are hotter out there especially and sticks with them throughout the game,” said Gasol. “But I think it’s got to be a balance. It’s not about who scores more, [it’s about] who is more effective. One night, maybe the stars are going to score more and have more of an offensive role and then the bench guys who are more dynamic, quicker, who speed up the pace, will score more [another night]. It depends on how the game goes and who we’re matching up against. So it’s not a concern for the starters group that the bench guys are doing well. We want the bench guys to be solid, to give us a boost every time we sit down and we have a deeper rotation.”

In an effort to preserve the one consistent part of the Lakers’ play so far, D’Antoni said he won’t just stick the bench in the starting lineup, however.

“You have to be careful,” D’Antoni said. “Sometimes it's easy to say 'Let's do that.’ But it's a little bit different when you're playing against the second group and now you've become the starter. I'm sure the starters would love to play the second group. You have to be careful in saying ‘This might work.’ No, it might not work. We have a couple of our starters who haven't been playing great yet. But they will. They haven't been yet. There's no use panicking yet.”