Of the choices of runaway NBA champions or hide-your-eyes flops, the Lakers have neither bludgeoned the league with their Hall of Fame genius nor gored themselves on a stray and sharp triangle corner.
What they have are 12 victories, or seven more than when they gathered at Shaquille O'Neal's mansion for Thanksgiving a year ago. That, given the radical personnel changes, everyone agrees will do.
Handed a reasonable early schedule, eight victories in eight home games, a minor injury here and there and some basic ball movement, the Lakers arrive at tonight's game against the San Antonio Spurs somewhere between satisfied with November and curious about the next month, and the one after.
The Laker perspective remains big, as in June big and bling-bling big. But there will be moments in the season that hone their focus, moments such as tonight at Staples Center, where the Lakers have won 23 consecutive regular-season home games but lost their last one in the playoffs, May 15 against these Spurs, when many of them wept.
Those who remain have not forgotten.
"Can't do that," said Derek Fisher, among the most affected.
Defeat in six games of the Western Conference semifinals brought a resolute plan for change, which brought veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton, which brought expectations that have occasionally appeared burdensome.
While the Lakers maneuvered around Kobe Bryant's legal entanglement, with more hearings scheduled in December and January, Bryant and O'Neal squabbled, the triangle offense listed and the bench contributed more confusion. Losses in New Orleans, Memphis and Detroit followed, the first two by lopsided scores, the last because of a frightful fourth-quarter collapse.
They came home and, despite O'Neal's sore calf, won four consecutive games, three by wide margins, the last two without O'Neal. This leads into a stretch in which they will play San Antonio twice, Indiana and Dallas over seven days. O'Neal said Wednesday he hoped he would play but could not guarantee it. The Lakers did not practice Thursday.
Meanwhile, it is the rare regular-season game that draws Coach Phil Jackson out of his one-in-82 perspective. The Lakers beat the Spurs in Texas three weeks ago, but the Spurs were without Tim Duncan and Tony Parker because of sprained left ankles, and the new-look Lakers needed two overtimes to do it.
Assuming O'Neal's return, both teams will play at something reasonably close to full strength tonight.
"It's an opportunity for us to hold home court, to redeem what we lost as far as home-court advantage during the playoffs a year ago," Jackson said. "The final game of the season still weighs on [our] minds. We anticipate San Antonio coming in here with the confidence of having won on our court last year a couple of times.... We're going to have to knock that out of them. We're going to have to play a very aggressive game and take it to them."
The Larry O'Brien trophy bobbed down the San Antonio River five years ago before spending three years on buses along Figueroa Street, at which point it returned to the Riverwalk and another parade. On their way to reclaiming the title, the Spurs swept four regular-season games from the Lakers, then four of six in the playoff series, the last with remarkable, unsettling ease.
Three months later, Jackson watched Game 6 again. A month after that, Game 6 still lingered.
"We were not a very disciplined basketball club defensively," Jackson said in September. "I was very disappointed in how we played that final game. I thought we had the ability to step up during the course of that San Antonio series and never really got it to that point. Offensively, I felt we didn't play together in a way that's cohesive. I came back with the resolve we're going to be more disciplined with this team this year.
"You have a tendency as a coach to trust your players, that they know how to get things done, they're going to get it done, they're going to make sacrifices and we know how to play together the right way.... We never got to that point last year, where we were able to have everybody together in one space and time."
Six months after Game 6, the space and time have arrived again, out of the playoffs' glare. It won't make Robert Horry's shot at the end of Game 5 good. It won't even dry their eyes.
But, it could start them back.
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Lakers vs. Spurs in the Phil Jackson era:
*--* Season Playoffs 1999-2000 1-3 DNP 2000-2001 2-2 4-0 2001-2002 3-1 4-1 2002-2003 0-4 2-4 2003-2004 1-0 --