1. Lakers Living Up To New Expectations
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.
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.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Dwight Howard. He finished the game on a brutally efficient 31 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. Howard said his shoulder was fine before the game. It's hard not to believe him after that performance.
X factor: The Lakers' ball movement was stellar. They had 21 assists (their season average prior to the game) on 23 made field goal attempts in the first half alone. They finished with 30 assists.
That was ... baffling. The Bucks more than doubled the Lakers' number of offensive rebounds, but they didn't do much with them. Many of these extra possessions led to panicked, hot potatoed shots early in the shot clock.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Brook Lopez. While Deron Williams and Joe Johnson ran hot and cold in this one, Lopez was consistent throughout. The Raptors had no answer for Brooklyn's big man, as he put up 22 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
X factor: Mirza Teletovic. Making an extremely strong case for more playing time, Teletovic scored 10 points in five minutes, including three 3-pointers. He was the spark the Nets needed to extend their lead.
That was ... unlucky. Talk about the injury bug. In this game alone, Jose Calderon took a knee to the thigh, Alan Anderson lost a tooth, Kyle Lowry turned an ankle and, perhaps most troubling, Quincy Acy momentarily lost a contact.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Eric Bledsoe. In his second straight start, Bledsoe was the wrench in the Rockets' plans, making huge plays with his freakish athleticism to win multiple possessions that should have belonged to Houston.
X factor: Jamal Crawford's fourth quarter. Is there a streakier shooter in the league? Crawford torched Jeremy Lin on five straight possessions, tallying 15 of his season-high 30 points in the final frame.
That was ... eye-opening. The Rockets played well enough offensively, but James Harden and Jeremy Lin looked like matadors defensively, allowing the Clippers' backcourt players to hit them for 64 combined points.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Ty Lawson showed some of the crunch time aggression he has been missing this season, posting 24 points and 12 assists. He had 10 straight points for the Nuggets, spanning the fourth quarter and overtime.
X factor: The Blazers dropped their first overtime game of the season. Going into this contest, Portland was 5-0 in overtime and was building a reputation for improbable late-game magic.
That was ... fantastic. Sometimes an overtime game sneaks up on you in the middle of January, when both teams get balanced efforts and a player such as Wilson Chandler hits an unlikely back-breaker 3. Those are good nights.
3. Tuesday's Best
Dwight Howard, Lakers: In only his second game back since missing three games with a torn labrum, Howard posted 31 points on 14-of-18 shooting, 16 rebounds and four blocks. With Howard paired with Kobe Bryant (31 points), the Bucks had no answer for the Lakers' inside-outside dominance.
4. Tuesday's Worst
Bobcats at home: Charlotte lost its 13th straight home game Tuesday night against Indiana. The Bobcats, held to 35 percent shooting and outworked 60-31 on the boards, haven't won at Time Warner Cable Arena since a Nov. 21 meeting with the Raptors.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"Yeah, I'm a man of my word. A Hibbert always pays his debts. ... I guess I have to go find an ATM."
-- Pacers center Roy Hibbert, on telling his final five teammates left on the floor that he'd pay them $100 each if they kept the Bobcats to fewer than 80 points.
8. Taking Off In Houston
9. Stat Check
Jamal Crawford scored 30 points but had only one assist and no rebounds in the Clippers' win against the Rockets. He is the only NBA player this season to score at least 30 points in a game without producing either two or more rebounds or at least two assists.
The previous player to do so had been Crawford himself, in a 34-point, one-rebound, one-assist performance for Portland, last April against Golden State.See more from Elias
10. Dunk Of The Night
MVP: Greivis Vasquez. Despite some occasional imprudence with the rock, Vasquez scored 23 points with nine assists, penetrated the Philadelphia defense at will and quarterbacked a Hornets attack that scored 49 more points than it did in a November loss against these same Sixers.
X factor: Nick Young. Riding the pine for the first three quarters for not playing defense, Young entered the game in the final period and played some offense. In swaggy/spectacular fashion, Young scored 14 in his first five minutes and led a Sixers comeback bid that was more exciting than it was plausible.
That was ... different. After mustering a franchise-low 62 points against Philly in a Nov. 7 loss (sans Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon), the full-strength Hornets came out firing. New Orleans shot 16-for-21 in the first quarter and took a 35-28 lead it wouldn't relinquish.
MVP: Roy Hibbert. He set the tone for the team on both ends of the court, hitting three of his first four shots and blocking two shots in the first quarter alone. Hibbert was a big reason the Bobcats shot just 34.7 percent for the game and made just six of 22 shots in the paint.
LVP: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Kentucky product scored just four points and never got in a rhythm, looking much more like a rookie out there than he typically does while missing four of his five shots and making no difference on defense.
Well, that was ... dominant. When you win by 27 points, the numbers are going to be lopsided, but a 61-30 rebounding edge is rare to see in this league. Add in the fact that four of Indiana's starters scored at least 15 points while grabbing seven or more rebounds, and this one was over before it started.