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Lakers are all the rage on the road

A team that struggled away from home as recently as 2006-07 sports the NBA's best road record this season, 20-6. Not that Phil Jackson or his players are bragging about it.

February 24, 2009|Mike Bresnahan

OKLAHOMA CITY — Not that long ago, the Lakers were road worriers.

Their ventures away from Staples Center in the years after the Shaquille O'Neal trade were typically lose-lose propositions -- lose sleep in an unfamiliar hotel and then lose the game.

They were 12-29 on the road in 2004-05, 18-23 the next season and 17-24 in 2006-07 before starting to turn the corner last season with a 27-14 mark.

This season changes everything, though.

The Lakers are a league-best 20-6 on the road and within reach of the team-record 33-8 in 1971-72, a mark that actually breaks down to 31-7 on the road and 2-1 in neutral-site games.

The Lakers have already logged impressive victories at Boston and Cleveland, not to mention two wins in New Orleans.

They're not celebrating their road prowess yet, especially after squeaking by Minnesota on Sunday, 111-108.

But there's a difference when they walk into opposing arenas, something that hasn't been felt since they were winning championships earlier this decade.

"We seem to measure up on the road," Coach Phil Jackson said. "We still have a lot of really tough road games ahead of us, so we're not crowing right now about anything."

The Lakers were 31-10 on the road in 1999-2000, serving notice on the way to winning the first of three consecutive championships.

"We just always felt like everywhere we went we were going to win," said Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, a shooting guard for the team from 1999 to 2003. "We just had that mentality."

The Lakers are one of the league's deepest teams, a characteristic of a good road team. They also have perhaps the game's best closer in Kobe Bryant and a slew of post players who have been effective down low, be it home or away.

Shaw, however, wants to see more consistency from the present-day team before giving it road-warrior status.

"I think there was some slippage [against Minnesota]," Shaw said. "I think there's still room for improvement when it comes to teams that are beneath us, and not sinking back and playing to their level."

The Lakers get another road game against a team with a losing record tonight at Oklahoma City.

The Thunder (13-43) hasn't exactly been booming in its first season since moving from Seattle, dwelling near the bottom of the NBA standings with the Clippers, Washington and Sacramento.

Kevin Durant has had his moments while averaging 25.9 points, and former UCLA standout Russell Westbrook is averaging 15 points, 4.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds a game in his rookie season, but the Thunder can't stop anybody, giving up 104.4 points a game, 26th in the league.

Not that the Lakers can take much for granted after barely winning in Minnesota.

At Monday's practice, Jackson made the team go through 14 scenarios on screen-and-roll defense, "just to reestablish our fundamentals on that," he said.

It's in the best interest of the team to listen, seeing how there's this little matter of finishing with the top record in the league.

Jackson revealed Monday that he and his coaching staff weren't sure at the All-Star break that the Lakers could maintain their hold on the top record, for the simple reason that they had more road games than Boston and Cleveland.

"But we're starting to even that out now and our road record's the best in the league, so we're feeling like we've got a shot at this," Jackson said.

Bryant banter

Jackson sometimes chides Bryant -- too many shots, too few passes -- but on Monday, he was in a complimentary mood.

"Kobe's plying as well [or] better than he did last year. Most of that is simply because he's been our leader," Jackson said. "He's more determined in that aspect."

How so?

"Most of it's the push, it's the drive. Every game he comes out and there's a purpose that these guys have to play for," Jackson said. "There's a reason to go out there and win, there's a motivation that he provides by always pressing the team forward.

"A lot of times it overrides guys. They get upset that they're not getting as many shots or something, but he says, 'OK, come get the ball. If you want to take it from me, you've got to show you're as hungry to score, as hungry and aggressive as I am.' That's the leadership that he provides."

Bryant is shooting 47.2%, which would be the most accurate season of his 13-year career if he maintained it.

He is averaging 27.6 points, slightly down from last season's 28.3 average, and five assists a game, a dip from last season's 5.4.

He is also playing fewer minutes, 36.6 a game compared with 38.9 last season.

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

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