My math skills are a little shaky, but far as I can tell no Western Conference team has piled up more wins since the All-Star break than the Lakers, who earned their 19th Sunday afternoon over the Mavericks at Staples. It was their fourth straight win -- all with Kobe Bryant on the sidelines -- and eighth in 10 tries. At .639, the squad getting its team photo snapped in El Segundo Monday morning does so with the NBA's fifth-best winning percentage.
Still, until they started winning without Bryant, L.A.'s success went relatively unnoticed, with most of the focus centered on what hasn't gone well. Losses in early March to Washington and Detroit kicked the second half off on a sour note, as did a bad defeat at the hands of Oklahoma City a few weeks later.
Some of the wins actually hurt their resume, too. Twice the Lakers barely squeaked by the Hornets. They needed OT to beat a Memphis team without Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph, almost lost to Minnesota without Kevin Love, and so on and so forth. Most importantly, the defense had been on a steady downward trajectory for weeks, and in related news, Andrew Bynum looked less than predictable.
Now things are looking up. The Lakers are not favorites, prohibitive or otherwise, to win a title. However, the idea of playoff prosperity doesn't seem nearly as far-fetched as it did 10 days ago. While reading too much into any small sample size is dangerous, real weaknesses in the team still exist, nothing they do now necessarily impacts how they'll play in, say, two weeks, and it remains to be seen whether their top end is top end enough, there are legitimate indications the Lakers are going in the direction all teams want: To be playing their best when the postseason begins.
Here are three encouraging signs not easily be dismissed as fluky:
1. The defense has improved.
Over the course of the win streak, the Lakers have held every opponent under 100 points in regulation, their longest streak since mid-February. While the efficiency numbers haven't been overwhelming, in those games where they didn't log top end wire-to-wire performances (San Antonio), the Lakers stiffened up and made stops when they had to (Q4 vs. New Orleans, the second half vs. Dallas). Fundamentally, the difference has been Bynum. Faced with a chance to take his season (and perhaps his Lakers career) in any direction he chose, Bynum has re-engaged defensively, and while the goofy moments haven't stopped completely (and likely won't), he's working hard again on the floor, something he simply wasn't doing with consistency before.
The Lakers are a much improved offensive team with Ramon Sessions, but were basically giving all of it back at the other end. If they can reverse the latter trend and get back to elite level defense particularly in the halfcourt where so many possessions occur in the postseason, they have a chance to win games. Even more if the recent trend toward strong rebounding, something they did routinely early in the year and got away from, continues. For the first time in a long time, they're showing positive signs.
2. Metta World Peace has evolved into a positive.
MWP's role in the offense has increased in Kobe's absence, and with it his numbers (17 points on 51.6 percent shooting and 41.7 from 3), but World Peace has been on an upward trajectory since averaging only 3.6 points in January. The improvement isn't simply one of production (which is nice) but mobility. As in, he has some. Suddenly his game has a little flair. See Metta dunk! See Metta plow through the lane! See Metta run the floor! Offensively, he's able to finish plays in ways he wasn't before, and at the other end MWP is moving his feet, putting him close enough to allow his incredibly fast/strong hands to create havoc on opposing ball handlers (see the end of the Clippers game vs. CP3 as an example).
Most telling perhaps is the reaction of Staples fans when World Peace gets the ball. No longer does the entire building try and discourage him from shooting.
World Peace will tell you he's healthy, and certainly the old swagger is back. He's not the guy he was in his prime, but that guy isn't required. What they needed was improvement over the guy who looked like he was in my prime, a very discouraging place for an NBA player to be.
3. The bench isn't strong, but it isn't a moonscape wasteland, either.
Just as Metta's improvement from liability to something better than average elevates the small forward position without making it elite, so too does the play of Matt Barnes, combined with signs of life from Steve Blake, make the bench something that, while not necessarily striking fear into opponents, need not do it for Lakers' fans, either. Barnes has performed solidly for a while, averaging 8.5 points on 48.2 percent from the floor and 38 percent from downtown in 17 March games. April has been even better. While his FG% has dropped overall, Barnes has bumped his 3-point shooting to 41.4 percent. Meanwhile, he's averaging 8.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 28.1 minutes.
Blake's turnaround hasn't been one of big stats, but confidence and competence. He had lost most of both, and now seems to have found it. It started in New Orleans where he had eight points but more importantly made key hustle plays directly tied to the team's victory that night. Since, he's scored 10 against San Antonio, seven against Denver, and four Sunday vs. Dallas. Modest numbers for sure, but a massive improvement over 2.8 points a night in March. Even better, some of those points have come at the rim, a place Blake has rarely ventured, and he's pulling the trigger on shots when they need to be taken, and seems to be finding a comfort level with the corner 3.
The Lakers don't need Blake to join with Sessions in creating some sort of Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic quality backcourt. That won't happen. They need the ability to put their backup 1 on the floor without causing pain. A low threshold, yes, but one for long stretches Blake didn't meet. Now he is. It makes a difference, and the same basic principle applies to the bench as a group.