Reporting from San Antonio
The Lakers have won six consecutive games, leading to an undeniable buzz.
"We have a six-game win streak?" forward Ron Artest said with a surprised look, summing up everything about a team that isn't quite playing the way it wants to play.
The Lakers have been uninspiring and uneven, coughing up leads against Minnesota and Washington and collecting a trio of single-digit victories against Golden State, Sacramento and Toronto.
They played well at Phoenix almost two weeks ago, but there's no joy in Lakerville as they begin a five-game trip Wednesday in San Antonio.
"I think it's right," a monotone Kobe Bryant said of the team's subdued mood. "The only thing we care about is winning a championship. It's not a six-game win streak or seven, 10, whatever. It doesn't matter. I don't think anybody will be happy until the end of June."
The Lakers (52-18) are in a peculiar holding pattern for their final 12 regular-season games. Two weeks ago, as Dallas and Denver moved within three games of them, this trip looked like a big one.
Then Dallas lost three of four, including a humiliating 34-point loss at home against New York, and Denver went 2-3, and well, what exactly does this five-gamer mean to the Lakers?
They hold a comfortable lead in the Western Conference, 5-1/2 games ahead of Denver and Dallas. They're also firmly behind Cleveland (56-15) for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, a race that's all but over. (The Cavaliers have won seven consecutive games and hold the tiebreaker with the Lakers because of their two-game sweep this season.)
The Lakers could stand to clean up a scruffy road appearance since going 0-3 in their last series of games in a different time zone (Miami, Charlotte and Orlando). They will also try to reach a recently installed goal of 60 victories.
"To do that, we have to win on this road trip," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.
The Spurs are actually surviving without Tony Parker, who has a broken right index finger and might not return until the playoffs.
Not that the Lakers have noticed.
"Parker's out? What happened to him?" Artest said, again with a surprised look. "He's a good point guard."
The whole season has been a test of survival for the aging Spurs, who probably won't have home-court advantage in the first round and aren't getting much sympathy from the Lakers.
"Nothing," Bryant said. "Not a … thing."
From there, the Lakers play Friday at Oklahoma City, which has a young and fun nucleus: a superstar in waiting (Kevin Durant, 21 years old), a push-the-tempo point guard (former UCLA standout Russell Westbrook, 21) and a versatile power forward with good touch from outside (Jeff Green, 23).
The Thunder, though, has lost 12 consecutive times to the Lakers (including as the SuperSonics), the longest active losing streak against them.
The Lakers play Saturday in Houston, which almost had their number in last season's seven-game Western Conference semifinals and forced overtime earlier this season before losing.
Then comes New Orleans, a borderline playoff team that couldn't get over losing All-Star guard Chris Paul, who returned earlier this week from a 25-game absence because of torn cartilage in his left knee.
The Lakers finish off the trip next Wednesday at Atlanta, a team with a solid starting lineup and a strong candidate for sixth man of the year ( Jamal Crawford) but a nagging inability to beat the Lakers, Cleveland and Orlando (combined record: 0-6).
The trip means something to forward Lamar Odom, who will be in the starting lineup while Andrew Bynum rests a strained left Achilles' tendon.
"This is the time we want to get tuned up and prepared for the playoffs," Odom said. "We know what we need to do. We've been to the Finals the last two years."
They could start by creating some distance in games. The Lakers have beaten a team by more than 10 points only once in their last 16 games — a 122-99 victory March 2 against Indiana.
"We wish we could put them away and, instead of winning by two or four, win by 30 or 20, like we were earlier in the season," Artest said. "There's something happening where we're just not doing that anymore."
What is that something?
"I'm not sure," he said.
Maybe boredom. Or fatigue. Or pick-and-roll defense. Or a lack of outside shooting. Or looking ahead to April, if not May or June.
Whatever it is, they have 12 games to fix it, beginning with five away from Staples Center.
Odom injury update
Odom has a lesion on the labrum in his left shoulder, a permanent leftover from two surgeries on the shoulder to repair the labrum. He had surgery in 2005 and again in 2007, and has occasional flare-ups in the shoulder.
"I'm going to play if it's fallen off, torn, whatever it might be," Odom said.