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Lakers are about to get a 1-2 punch from schedule

After playing 17 of first 21 games at home, the Lakers have begun a demanding, potentially revealing stretch that could show what they're made of: 11 back-to-back sets in eight weeks

December 15, 2009|By Mike Bresnahan

Brian Shaw smiles. Or maybe it's a grimace. It wasn't that long ago that he was the one who had to work his way through back-to-back games.

The Lakers assistant coach knows all too well the pratfalls that await, the 24-hour endurance checks lingering in the very near future for a team that has fattened up on home games.

The Lakers coasted through the first month and a half of this season, mostly sleeping in their own beds, strolling through game after game at Staples Center, experiencing only three situations in which they played on consecutive nights.

Welcome to the rest of their schedule. Last Friday at home they beat Minnesota, then flew to Salt Lake and lost badly to Utah on Saturday. So began a period during which 22 of 32 Lakers games are scheduled in back-to-back sets, a majority of them on the road.

Not since the lockout-condensed NBA schedule in 1999 have the Lakers had such a rush of back-to-back attacks.

The fun begins anew tonight at Chicago and Wednesday at Milwaukee, continuing Saturday at New Jersey and Sunday at Detroit.

Some other notable double dips over the next eight weeks: Christmas Day at home against Cleveland followed by an immediate departure to Sacramento for a Dec. 26 game; back-to-back lung-burners against run-and-gun teams Phoenix and Golden State (Dec. 28-29); two sides of the Texas triangle in San Antonio and Dallas (Jan. 12-13); an eight-game Eastern trip that begins in Cleveland and New York (Jan. 21-22) and ends with an electrifying starter at Boston (Jan. 31) and a potential trap game the next night at Memphis; and a home game against Denver (Feb. 5) followed by a visit to their personal house of horrors, Portland.

It's all part of the penance they pay for a schedule in which they played 17 of their first 21 games at home.

The Lakers will have a total of 20 sets of back-to-backs this season, their most since 22 in 1999-2000, when Shaw was a reserve guard for the Lakers.

"The first night of those back-to-backs, you've got to take care of business, get yourself in position to get an [opposing] team down, keep them down and try to get the starters off their feet as early as possible," said Shaw, in his fifth season as a Lakers coach. "The second night of back-to-backs are when you definitely rely on your bench a lot more to make a contribution."

It could be worse: NBA teams sometimes played on four consecutive nights from the 1950s to the 1970s, not to mention three nights in a row for some of the Lakers' "Showtime" teams of the 1980s. (NBA teams also sometimes played three consecutive nights in 1999 to squeeze 50 games into three months.)

The Lakers (18-4) claim they are ready for the consecutive-night consequences.

"They're good tests to see where we're at," reserve forward Lamar Odom said. "If we can come out of them really strong, that says a lot about us.

"It helps on the back-to-backs if we can avoid the close games, know what I mean? It's going to be a test, which we should expect after all these home games."

For all their talents, the Lakers aren't exactly young. Derek Fisher is 35. Kobe Bryant is 31. Odom and Ron Artest are 30.

"For Kobe and particularly for Fish, it's going to be harder to get everything all lubed up and going on that second night," Shaw said. "The guys that are coming off the bench have to contribute greatly."

That used to be Shaw's duty, along with Robert Horry and Rick Fox in 1999-2000, when the Lakers began the first of three championship runs by going 19-3 in the ever-important second games of back-to-backs.

This season, they are a mundane 2-2 in similar situations, with one-sided losses at Denver and Utah. Now they get plenty of chances to show they're better than .500 in that area after going 14-5 last season.

"You just have to play through that," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of follow-up nights. "The start of the season might be a little difficult for teams to recover, but you get used to doing that. There's no excuse. You have to play through it. Some years, you have 20 back-to-backs, some years 15."

The schedule really is the luck of the draw. The Lakers often play most of their road games in the second half of the season because the Grammy Awards knock them out of Staples Center in late January and early February, though that 1999-2000 team had plenty of road games in the early part of its schedule on the way to a 67-15 record.

"It's going to be a good time to get in the weight room, stay sharp, stay strong, try to avoid fatigue as much as possible," Odom said. "Back-to-backs are when you want to do all the small things -- control tempo defensively and offensively."

Many observers say the Lakers have the NBA's best starting five, but their reserves will need to make a mark after some inglorious efforts this season. The second night will be the barometer.

Shaw remembers those times as a player.

"Phil always made us aware of the fact that the rotation on the starters might be shorter in their first run," he said. "He would come around to the [backup] guys -- myself, Robert and Rick -- and say, 'Be ready to come in a little bit earlier than normal.'

"Not that I felt like I was going to have to come in and do something great, but for somebody coming off the bench and probably playing anywhere between 12 and 20 minutes, if you can't get cranked up for the second night, then something's wrong."

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

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