LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers and their fan base considered Sunday's Christmas Day tilt against the Los Angeles Clippers to be a "must-win game," but zoom out on that notion for a moment to consider just how far expectations have wandered from reality. This is a team that posted a franchise-worst 17-65 record last season, features the league's youngest coach in 36-year-old Luke Walton and boasts a roster built around players not far from the legal drinking age. But then the Lakers opened the season with a 7-5 record, and suddenly, the parameters for what seemed possible began expanding to unreasonable limits, including, yes, a playoff push.
Such foolhardy chatter quickly died off in the midst of the Lakers' most recent slide, when they lost 12 of 13 entering Sunday, including dropping a pair of games in which they led by 19 points. Their defeats were owed to injury, youth, running into teams that were simply better or some combination of all three, but by then these facts already had drifted further and further from the conversation. Historically, the Lakers win, and, even amid rebuilding, a few wins breeds the long-held belief that more will follow, no matter the circumstances. That's just how the Lakers have operated, even if they've done little more than lose in the past three seasons.
For Walton, and for Lakers fans as well, there is a tug and pull between wanting immediate results and understanding just how far the team has to go to reach its ultimate goal. After spending two seasons as an assistant with the mighty Golden State Warriors, and after winning two titles as a player with the Lakers, it's understandable if Walton lacks patience, but defeats help refocus him. "It's hard to lose, but it's important for us," Walton said Sunday, before his team's 111-102 win over their fellow Staples Center tenants, pushing the Lakers to 12-22.
"And I've gotten caught up in myself, letting even the winning early on get us off track a little bit, and then obviously the losing that's happened lately, same type of thing. It's frustrating. You get angry. And sometimes that blurs your vision of where we're trying to go as a team. It's important for us to continue to focus on that process and to focus on getting better at the simple things of the game, building from the ground up."
Let's be clear -- the Lakers are far ahead of schedule, so far that, again, expectations are wildly askew. They didn't achieve their 11th win last season until Feb. 26, and by then they already had lost 49 games. For the Lakers, this season is about building a foundation upon which future success can grow. First and foremost, Walton is trying to forge a culture while gauging what his young core is and might one day be. Wins are a bonus -- and already there have been more than enough to appease even the most die-hard Lakers fan -- but it's more about making an impression on the team and on others around the league, which has already happened.
"They're fun to watch," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before the game. "They really are. They move the ball. They get the ball up the floor. They attack. They're playing with more freedom. They're playing with more joy, quite honestly. Visually, that's what you see. You saw it more earlier, but even in this tough stretch, they've been in most of the games, so they're fun to watch. They really are. I love watching young guys grow and you can see the growth."
Rivers admitted that it's hard to know how long it will take for the Lakers' young players to reach their potential -- or if the Lakers will ultimately keep them or ship some off in the hopes of getting something better in return. It's too hard to predict that far ahead. All that's clear, on the outside, is that the Lakers are promising. On the inside, young players who don't yet truly know how to win still expect to, and stew at the opposite result, which is far removed from seasons past and is perhaps Walton's greatest feat of all. No matter what transpired before his arrival, Walton has the Lakers believing that the recent past is more distant than it really is.
"Everyone believed that we could win tonight," Lakers forward Brandon Ingram said.
It helped, of course, that Clippers stars Blake Griffin (knee) and Chris Paul (hamstring) were both sidelined because of injury, and J.J. Redick left because of a strained hamstring. But it didn't matter. After falling behind by 11 points, the Lakers fought back, built a big lead and didn't surrender it, though they turned lackadaisical late in the game, falling into old habits.
"I told them, let it feel good, but let's not kid ourselves," Walton said of his message to his team after the game. "I tell them that the impressive thing is three out of the last four games, against good NBA teams, we've built up 17-, 18-, 19-point leads, which is not easy to do. So we're capable, when we're really locked in and we're playing hard and competing, of doing damage, but it's the little things that almost happened again tonight that are going to hold us back."
When the Lakers erase some of those mistakes, many of which can be credited to inexperience, then Walton said true growth can begin. Still, he was happy with the win, as were the players, and so too were the fans. It had been a while. But, again, zoom out. The Lakers are still so far beyond where anyone believed they might be. They're at the point where "must-win games" exist, where wins themselves are no longer a salve or a surprise but, in some cases, expected. Zoom out, and, in the spirit of the holiday, it's clear that the team's progress to this point is quite possibly the greatest and most unexpected gift the organization or its fans could've hoped for, because no matter how far their success continues to push expectations from reality, how far they've come in so short a time simply cannot be overlooked.