Lakers look to prove themselves on road

We've reached the halfway-home mark of the regular season, and the Lakers have the best record in the NBA.

Whoop de doo.

Los Angeles earned its 32-9 mark as much as a rich kid earns a brand-new Mercedes-Benz as a 16th-birthday gift from his or her parents.

If the Lakers weren't in first place after playing three more home games (26) than the next closest teams (San Antonio and Portland are tied for second with 23) and after paying $5.5 million more in total team salary ($91.4 million) than the next closest team (New York at $85.9 million) this season, something would be terribly wrong.

Their chance to prove they deserve the status of the league's No. 1 team starts Thursday in Cleveland when they begin an eight-game, 14-day road trip. If they can go 6-2 or 7-1 on the trip, it will be the equivalent of that 16-year-old taking the Benz through an obstacle course while doing 80 miles per hour.

The Lakers' road odyssey continues on through New York, Toronto, Washington, Indiana, Philadelphia, Boston and Memphis. Only four of the eight teams have records of .500 or better, but the trip also includes three back-to-backs, so the Knicks, Pacers and Grizzlies (who already are tough at 22-18) all become tougher.

"Last year we were able to go out on a road trip and kind of make our season," Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said. "This year we're hopeful that we can go out there and win a majority of these games out on the road. That's as good as you can expect, to go out and have [an eight-game] trip like this and win five. I'm setting a real low bar for this team; I know they'll respond."

Jackson basically was saying that if the kid gets through unscathed, he's earned the car.

But, if the Lakers go 5-3 with two of those losses coming to the Cavaliers and the Celtics, they will have regressed back to the team they were earlier in the season, the team that repeatedly failed to rise to the occasion when a challenge was presented.

If they don't get at least one victory out of those two marquee matchups, their two recent quality wins at Dallas and at home against Orlando will start to look more like outliers than outstanding, considering the way they already came up small in meaningful games against Denver, Houston, Utah, Cleveland, Portland and San Antonio.

L.A. swept its six-game trip in late January through early February last season when it marched through Minnesota, Memphis, New York, Toronto, Boston and Cleveland, and won convincingly. Kobe Bryant scored a Madison Square Garden-record 61 points against the Knicks. The Lakers beat the Celtics in overtime when Lamar Odom got into it with Kevin Garnett and turned the game around. They beat the Cavs to snap Cleveland's 23-0 start to its season at Quicken Loans Arena.

That's the type of statement the Lakers need to convince the league that this team is made of the same mettle as the team that hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy this past June.

"There are always questions about our team," Derek Fisher said. "Some rightfully so, others that just are questions. It's a long enough road trip and we play enough different types of opponents -- different records, different levels, whatever you want to call it -- that I think there will be answers provided."

One of those questions is whether the Lakers can keep up their defense playing against more physical opponents. Last season, L.A. ranked second in total steals, third in opponent's 3-point percentage (34.5), sixth in opponent's field goal percentage (44.7), 10th in total blocks and 13th in points per game allowed (99.3).

This season, the Lakers are seventh in total steals and 13th in total blocks, but first in opponent's field goal percentage (43.5), first in opponent's 3-point percentage (31.0) and seventh in points per game allowed (96.4).

However, those numbers don't accurately reflect L.A.'s 102-87 Christmas Day clobbering by Cleveland, in which the Lakers allowed the Cavs to shoot 53.5 percent from the field and be the aggressors.

"We had a discussion about our defense last week, a little bit of a consideration of the energy that we put into defense," Jackson said. "I think we've become a little more conscious of it and watch the energy we put out there defensively and try to get back that understanding that defense is really the key to this game."

"This is a big chance for our group to become stronger," Pau Gasol said. "We want to set the tone from the beginning [against Cleveland]. We want to go and be aggressive and prove to ourselves that we're the best team out there."

Now's the time to earn it.

Dave McMenamin cover the Lakers for ESPN Los Angeles.