Opportunity knocks now for Lakers

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers may have achieved a mythical moral victory with their 101-95 loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day.

In reality, they're as bad as they've been all season, at least record-wise.

The Heat defeat dropped the Lakers to 13-16, the most games L.A. has been below .500 since it started the season 4-7.

Eighteen games later a lot has changed in terms of who has been in and out of the lineup and the latest Lakers drama-grabbing headlines (Kobe Bryant vs. Jim Brown; Pau Gasol on the trade block; Mike D'Antoni vs. ungrateful fans), but not a whole lot in terms of their win-loss rate.

The Lakers are far from must-win territory, having played 29 of the 82 games on the schedule. But at some point they cannot simply keep kicking the can down the road, waiting to become the team they hope to be. At some point, you are who you are.

So far their ethos has been to do their best to hover around .500 until the "cavalry" (in the Lakers' case, Bryant, Steve Blake and Steve Nash assuredly won't come back riding horses) comes in, according to D'Antoni, who last week said the Lakers can make the playoffs this season and then his team went 1-3 in its next four games. Still, there is the lure of being .500 that's more than just a crutch. Houston was the No. 8 seed in the playoffs last season going 45-37, or four games better than .500.

"That's something we don't want to get too far away from," D'Antoni said after the game Wednesday. "It's more also you got to look at the schedule; these are three important games we have coming up. So, that's important. We've kicked some games away. We shouldn't be in the position that we're in, but now we got to get ourselves out of it."

The three games D'Antoni was referring to -- at the Utah Jazz on Friday, home against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, then another home game against the Milwaukee Bucks on New Year's eve -- are all against teams with losing records. If they sweep, L.A. will go into 2014 with a "clean slate" -- a 16-16 record with 50 games left to play.

The new year starts out inviting enough for the Lakers, as well, with two more home games, against Utah and the Denver Nuggets.

That's all before they finish out January with 10 of 13 games on the road.

It's just the reality of the brutal NBA schedule for teams to look for a soft spot to pounce and try to produce some momentum to ride them into the tougher times. For the Lakers, that soft spot is now -- the next five games.

"We want to definitely protect home," Lakers shooting guard Wesley Johnson said. "We should have that mindset to try to get all of them at home. So, hopefully we can and just continue to play hard."

Sounds like a statement coming from a player wholly aware of his team's 6-9 road record and a schedule that includes a seven-game "Grammy's trip" next month.

Of course, the Lakers could continue to stumble and somehow rally like they did last season, when they finished 28-12. But for all the chemistry the 2012-13 team lacked compared to this season's unit, it did have undeniable talent.

We know the ceiling of the current Lakers is not of that of the Heat, who are vying to become the first team since the 2001-02 Lakers to three-peat and are doing ridiculous things on the court on a nightly basis. (Witness Dwyane Wade's off-the-glass alley-oop Wednesday that LeBron James finished his left hand.)

But L.A. could be like the 2008-09 Houston Rockets, who suffered injury after injury but had the right mix of "special stuff," as D'Antoni calls it, to take them all the way to Game 7 of the second round against the Lakers.

The Lakers just need to know when to make their move. Because the further they slip from .500, (as Bryant pointed out Wednesday: "We all know how tough the Western Conference is") the faster the franchise's priority will flip from the postseason to draft preparation.

"Just understand it's going to take our whole team to come out and play aggressively and with intensity in order for us to win games as shorthanded as we are," Gasol said. "It's a good opportunity for us to get on the right track and put a few wins together. Let's see if we can finish the year strong."