Race to the Finish

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- In the short term, the Lakers next two games will be a practice in pace, as Los Angeles will try to control the tempo against the speedy Warriors and Kings teams up in Northern California by using their size and "imposing their will," as Lamar Odom said after Sunday's practice.

Golden State's "pace factor," or the number of possessions a team uses per game, is 102.3 and Sacramento's is 96.8 according to ESPN's John Hollinger. The Lakers' pace factor registers in at 95.9.

In the long run, however, the Lakers will try to control the pace in which it approaches the last 16 games of the season as they hope to build on the momentum of their team-centric win in Phoenix on Friday.

"At a point the season was moving pretty fast, but now it's not moving as fast," Ron Artest said. "It's at a good pace right now I think. I don't want it to move any faster because we got a lot of work to do. I don't want it to be April yet."

The regular season ends exactly a month from Sunday, on April 14, and Artest thinks the team has gotten past the problems that plagued it over the last several months. But he wants to make sure the Lakers don't forget the lessons it earned in their upcoming stretch against four woefully sub-.500 teams in Golden State, Sacramento, Minnesota and Washington.

"I want it to move at that good pace when we have control," Artest said. "We want to control the time."

The Lakers should win all of those games. Their upcoming opponents have a combined winning percentage of .287 (75-186) on the season. And the Lakers could win them rather easily, even though the Warriors and Kings have played them relatively close already this year, because both of those teams are dealing with a slew of injuries. But the key is to not relish in the ease, because seven of their final 12 games after that are against teams bound for the playoffs and eight of the 12 are on the road.

And winning easy, or at least celebrating the fact when they do, is what got the Lakers into this situation with the first place according to Artest.

"Everything was so easy," Artest said. "It was so easy for us. We played the right way at the beginning of the season, we have, it's not like for the whole season we were playing bad. We did play that way and the games were so easy. That was the conversations we were having earlier. It was just so easy. It was too easy and we made it kind of hard on ourselves.

"We kept saying it, I kept saying it instead of saying, 'We got to get better.' Instead of saying, 'We got to get better, we got a tough game ahead of us,' we kept reflecting on the last game that was too easy. I don't think that helped us. But now we're playing like we're being hunted instead of playing like we're on top."

The result of all the easiness is the uneasy feeling Lakers fans get when checking the Western Conference standings and noticing L.A.'s precarious three-game lead over the Nuggets who have won six games in a row and three and half game lead over the Mavericks who just finished a streak in which they won 13 in a row.

"At the beginning of the season nobody had a chance and then we gave everybody a chance," Artest said.

Having survived the three-game lull with two wins against Toronto and Phoenix, Artest wants the Lakers to do some streaking of their own.

"We just want to win every game and hopefully just win out," Artest said. "That would be the main goal, just not to lose anymore."

Wouldn't that be something? Eighteen straight wins to end the season would be just like the last Lakers team to accomplish a championship repeat. The 2000-01 squad won its last eight games of the regular season and started the postseason on an additional 11-0 spurt to extend its winning streak in the time when winning really matters to 19 games.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn't echo Artest's stated goal of an unblemished end to the regular season, but he did say, like Artest's idol Michael Jackson, the team wants to be starting something.

"I think in this game it's pretty obvious that momentum itself carries you and sometimes you it's the momentum of playing well, expectation of going out and playing well," Jackson said. "What we're seeking for is to build momentum so we can get into that position to get a run and go and get some momentum in the season."

Artest feels like the Lakers already have the momentum they need to ride out the rest of the season with.

"It was like a hell of a storm, a rollercoaster ride so far and I think we got over that hump, past that point," Artest said. "It just looks like brighter days ahead for the Lakers right now."