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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

This time Lakers' struggles might prove more costly

Regular-season underachievement (or coasting) is nothing new for Phil Jackson's Lakers. Still, it could be more difficult to overcome this season, now that the myth of their superiority in the West has been exploded.

January 22, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and All-Star guard Kobe Bryant have a bigger task at hand this season than last in trying to threepeat instead of repeat as NBA champions.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and All-Star guard Kobe Bryant have a bigger task… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Who you looking at, old timer?

If we're not sure whether the Lakers have to be rebuilt, reconfigured or merely revived, this season is like a long-running western, in which they can't get a sarsaparilla at the local saloon without being called out by attitudinal post-adolescents or grudge-bearing codgers.

Happily for the Lakers, spring is a ways off, since the post-adolescents and codgers are shooting them full of holes.

Not that Coach Phil Jackson is worried, of course.

Being Phil, he picked this moment to pooh-pooh Miami, which separated his team into its constituent atoms on Christmas.

"I, personally, don't think they can get by Boston," he told AM 710.

". . . But there's a chance they can maybe round themselves into a team by that time."

He didn't say how the Lakers would beat Boston . . . if they get past Dallas and San Antonio.

Of course, there's a chance the Lakers can round themselves into a team by that time, too!

Actually, without the Lakers' turning seasons like this around, the last decade would have belonged to the Spurs.

Jackson has been in this spot in five of his 10 Lakers seasons, excluding Nos. 1-9-10 when they romped in the West, and 6-7, when they were small fry between Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol.

In those five, the Lakers won two titles (2001, 2002), lost in two Finals (2004, 2008) and (oops) fell in the second round to the Spurs (2003).

Nevertheless, a lot of myths just bit the dust.

1. These Lakers are better than the Shaq-Kobe Bryant teams.

That was the annual November Greatness Myth with newcomers Steve Blake and Matt Barnes off to blazing starts and the team making 41% of its threes.

Since Dec. 1, they're at a more Laker-like 33%.

2. The Lakers own the West.

They did, but it just took itself back.

Having won it three times in a row without spending a day out of first place after Dec. 1 in the last two, they seemed between challengers.

The Spurs and Mavericks were old. The Thunder wasn't old enough.

Surprise!

3. If the Lakers maxed out in effort, no one could beat them.

Unfortunately, they never maxed out.

This time if they don't finally have a healthy Andrew Bynum at the end, they're gonzo.

Even with Andrew, they have yet to show their best makes them as good as the Celtics, Heat, Spurs or Mavericks, none of whom they've beaten.

4. The regular season doesn't mean anything to the Lakers.

Unfortunately for them, this one got more meaningful when it became clear things have changed.

At Thanksgiving, Gasol was an MVP candidate, Bryant just had to catch up and Bynum was expected any day.

Gasol wilted as minutes piled up and hasn't un-wilted with Bynum back.

Bryant acknowledged his right knee is "bone on bone," meaning he's no longer the force of nature who can carry them past all their rough spots.

5. When the bell rings, the Lakers will be there.

If no one in the NBA doubts it, it's not a reason for jubilation in Lakerdom.

If the Lakers are still a good team, they're a big, slow, low-energy team.

If 10 of their players are over 30, they're more middle-aged than old, with Derek Fisher the only rotation player over 32.

However, compared to the Thunder with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Lakers are sumo wrestlers.

At the three speed positions, the Lakers have:

—Bryant, who's 6-6, 210 but can keep up.

—Fisher, who's 6-1, 210, the size of an NFL halfback.

—Ron Artest, who's 6-7, 260, a full-sized inside linebacker (who may have missed his calling).

Gasol is fast, for a big man. Bynum isn't even fast for someone as big as he is, looking 10-20 pounds heavier than the 285 he says he is.

Good teams win first quarters. While winning 16 of their last 22 games, the Lakers were 8-13-1 in first quarters.

Bryant has all he can do to keep from biting someone in the neck. When Lamar Odom complained about the Clippers' Blake Griffin going all out, Kobe politely took Griffin's side.

"You play until the final buzzer sounds," said Bryant. "That's the way I grew up playing."

Jackson isn't big on changes but if times get worse, he could give up size and defense for athleticism and energy . . . say starting Shannon Brown with Bryant moving to Artest's forward spot.

At this point, anything that's the way it was looks good to Lakerdom.

So for whatever it's worth, Jackson is in vintage What Me Worry mode!

"We're still a very good team when we control the tempo of the game with our offense and can get back and play defense in half-court," he wrote in an e-mail last week.

"We haven't played our best yet this year, discounting the first 2 wks. but we are showing signs of coming into our own."

They're not big signs but it's early, the Lakers hope once more.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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