LOS ANGELES -- However overdue it might seem, however fleeting or lasting it might turn out to be, it finally can be said that the Los Angeles Lakers are a playoff team. The proclamation comes by virtue of their 90-81 victory over the Chicago Bulls that was low in aesthetic value and high in significance, because it gave them a 33-31 record, good for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
Kobe Bryant's reaction? A low-toned, sarcastic "Yippee."
The truth is, he and the Lakers are pleased with the way they've been playing lately.
They have won eight of their 10 games after the All-Star break, even if it has required overtime against the Toronto Raptors and a 25-point comeback against the New Orleans Hornets and this grinder against the banged-up, downtrodden Bulls.
"Playoff team" might be more of a technicality than a true description. They aren't dominating or intimidating anyone. They don't deserve to be called elite. You know what description fits? Team, period. More than at any other point in the season.
Six players scored in double figures Sunday; none had more than Bryant's 19 points. Dwight Howard is focusing on rebounds (he had 21), blocked shots (four) and setting picks (at least four of his screens led to made jumpers by Bryant and Jodie Meeks). Steve Nash is adapting to being a scorer rather than a playmaker; his 38 points the past two games are his most in back-to-back games this season. The role players such as Meeks, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark are making just enough shots when their defenders leave to double-team the stars.
"Right now we've really figured out how to bond together as a group," Bryant said. "True chemistry is built through adversity. It's tough because it could cut either way. It seems to have brought us together."
"I think they're getting a feel for each other and how to finish games out," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "And Dwight is just feeling better. You can see it all over the place. His back is better, he's in rhythm. He's a monster defensively."
The next question for the Lakers is if they've built a model that's sustainable. We've seen their defense get exploited by more proficient scoring teams than the Bulls, who are 28th in the league in points per game. We have not seen the Lakers beat any potential first-round playoff opponents on the road, which is where they would start any postseason series.
They're about to start the toughest stretch left on their schedule: In Orlando (where the locals will unleash a year's worth of anger at Howard), a back-to-back in Atlanta, then at Indiana.
With so much buildup to the game in Orlando -- Howard has been fielding questions for the past week -- his teammates' attitudes ranged from a defiant Bryant to an indifferent Metta World Peace.
"Boos don't block dunks," Bryant said.
As for World Peace?
"I don't really care, because I'm going to Disney World," he said. "We're getting in early. I don't care. I'm going to go on these rides. I'm going let the fans do what they do, that's their problem. I'm going to have the Mickey Mouse ears, all that. Watch me. You don't believe me, just watch."
Usually you hear players say they're going to Disney World after they win a championship. World Peace said it the day the Lakers finally could be considered a playoff team. Coming from the man who predicted a record-breaking number of victories by the Lakers last season, it's a sign of how far the expectations have dropped.