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HELENE ELLIOTT

With no one to push them, Lakers fight through dog days

March 07, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

The TV in the Lakers' locker room usually features replays of previous games against their opponent, but Friday's pregame channel surfing produced a different show -- one that played to an attentive audience.

While they dressed, the Lakers watched the Celtics and Cavaliers pound on each other in Boston in a game that became nasty in the second half. All the while the Lakers insisted they weren't concerned about what was transpiring 3,000 miles away.

"To be honest I think we don't really care about them," Sasha Vujacic said before the Lakers' 110-90 rout of the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center.

"Whatever is going on on the East Coast, obviously you want to get the best record but we will be going at each other in the Western Conference, too.

"We're going to let them enjoy their fun, and hopefully when the time comes we'll be able to face one of those teams."

The Lakers' romp and the Celtics' 105-94 victory over the Cavaliers ensured that the Lakers were the first team to reach 50 wins this season, at 50-12.

"We'd like to be the first to 60," Coach Phil Jackson said.

The Lakers were as good as they had to be Friday against the injury-depleted, 18-43 Timberwolves but less than scintillating, as has occasionally been the case. They say they were engaged, but even Jackson had to acknowledge that Minnesota's 33.3% shooting from the field was more the result of the Timberwolves' lack of depth than the Lakers' defense.

Lamar Odom said it was easy for the Lakers to remain focused "because we're striving for perfection, so mentally we stay in every game."

Some games more than others, which is inevitable because it's impossible to maintain a stellar level for an entire season. The Lakers have reached the dog days of March, the flat part of the schedule when legs get tired and they're squinting six weeks into the distance to see the playoffs. Compounding that, there's no one chasing them closely and pushing them to be better.

For the next few weeks the main points of interest for the Lakers will be Kobe Bryant's ascent up the NBA career scoring list -- a 23-point performance Friday lifted him past Robert Parish and into 18th place -- and making sure Bryant stays healthy.

Playing at Portland, Houston and San Antonio next week should inspire the Lakers to a higher level, but there really isn't much for them to get excited about besides the odd DJ Mbenga sighting -- he had 10 points Friday -- and waiting for Andrew Bynum to return, perhaps at the end of the month.

The Lakers started sluggishly Friday and distanced themselves from Minnesota in the second quarter, starting off with merely a five-point lead but extending that to 14 late in the period and taking a 47-36 lead into halftime.

The Timberwolves crept within four on a Ryan Gomes layup with 9:54 left in the third quarter but the Lakers went on a 13-3 run that took away all the drama.

It wasn't as interesting as the Celtics-Cavaliers game, but the Lakers don't have a rival near their level like the two Eastern teams do in each other, with Orlando a close third.

That could work to the Lakers' benefit, or to their detriment.

While Boston, Cleveland and Orlando beat up on each other, the Lakers can cruise to the top spot in the West.

Or the Celtics, Cavaliers and Magic could be making themselves sharper by playing close opponents who push them so often.

Jackson said he watched the Boston-Cleveland game, but he watched others, too.

"It's a regular-season game. They happen to have that on their schedule. We have San Antonio and Houston on ours this week," he said. "It just goes back and forth. That's just fulfilling the obligations of an 82-game season.

"Now, the game means more obviously for both those teams because they're competing for the best record and home-court advantage, but it has nothing to do with us right now."

In a way, though, it does.

It reminds the Lakers that if they don't have a team pushing them to be better, they'll have to push themselves. Vujacic, who had eight points, said the Lakers are capable of that.

"I think this team is very mature. I think this team is ready to win the championship," he said. "And I think we are tough enough to win it.

"We know what it takes. Last year we were so close but still so far away from winning it. It's helped us to mature quicker, most definitely. And I think that we are becoming a very dangerous team."

Bryant agreed. "We've got 20 games left so we get excited about that," he said. "So we start pushing even more."

A Lakers team that pushes itself might be the most dangerous of all.

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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