Lakers teammates Derek Fisher, left, Pau Gasol, center, and Kobe Bryant… (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images )
From Atlanta — They began this road trip in San Antonio, and still have Miami and Dallas ahead. Huge games.
That made this dump, this arena where a tetanus shot is as important as a ticket to enter the building, the ideal place to trap the Lakers into taking a night off.
We've all been there with the Lakers this season. If it didn't figure to take much effort to beat an opponent, the Lakers didn't give much of an effort, and sometimes lost.
They fell to Charlotte and Cleveland before the All-Star break, which isn't what most folks would expect from a two-time champ trying to win yet another title.
The Lakers never seemed to let it bother them, and each one of them now says they paid no attention to the criticism.
Let them believe what they want, but something has happened since taking a dive shortly before the break.
They were sitting here in the cold for the better part of two days with nothing to do. They were coming off an emotional high after playing their best game of the season, leaving open the possibility they might show up here flat.
One more game and they would be within a cab ride of South Beach.
So was Phil Jackson concerned about the ultimate trap game?
"Yes,'' he said.
I told him I needed so much more to write a column, so he said, "Put a hyphen between y, e and s."
Jackson is not only funnier, but the Lakers seem different since the All-Star break. But were they still going to be susceptible to overlooking an opponent?
"I don't know,'' said Jackson, who had to be reminded before the game that he's the coach with all the trophies and rings. So who would know better than him?
"I'm not a soothsayer or an astrologist," he said. "I can't project that far. The reason why sports are such a great game is that you don't know what the outcome is going to be.''
Jackson said the Lakers had a good practice, an attentive shoot-around and, he said, "the team is more focused [on basketball] at this time than at any other point in the season.''
So why didn't they just tell everyone they were going to flip on the switch when it really counted?
Jackson tried to make it sound as if it's not that easy. He even tried talking up the Hawks, reminding everyone they beat Chicago. That just tells me he still keeps an eye on Chicago.
The Hawks have the fifth best record in the East, but are just dreadful. They have lost four of their last five, including three-straight home games.
"We have not played well in this building,'' protested Jackson in trying to find some reason to put his team on alert. "This is one of those places where players get distracted."
From the rats in the locker room?
"Shaq used to have a block party when he came here,'' Jackson said.
So it still bothers the players? To be helpful, I advised Jackson that Shaq no longer plays for the Lakers.
"That's true,'' he said, the first time we have ever agreed. And that's how much these Lakers have changed.
Maybe this really is a different Lakers team than the one who let the home-court edge in the West get away. They still trail San Antonio and Dallas, but the Mavericks are in their sights and the Lakers have more road wins than any team in the NBA.
"Our cockiness got in the way early in the season,'' said Lamar Odom. "Now we go into every game knowing if we do the right things as a team, we're going to win.''
Pau Gasol said the team is better because of "concentration,'' while Kobe Bryant attributed it to defense, homework and following the game plan.
Now I suppose one could criticize Andrew Bynum for a dropoff in his play. He had only 16 rebounds against Atlanta after having 17 against the Spurs and 17 the game before that.
"I had another one, but Kobe and I were going for it and Pau ended up getting credit,'' Bynum said with a laugh. Bynum displaying emotion is another positive change.
Next up, the Cry Babies, and as big as the game with Dallas will be Saturday night, I just hope the Lakers don't get caught looking past Miami.
That's how far the Heat has fallen.
"It's a perfect set-up for them to get back on track," Bryant said. "They have no option but to fight. This is going to be a big challenge for us. They're looking at this game as the game that's going to turn things around for them.''
THE MEDIA is really negative in this city. It's obviously nothing like Los Angeles.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz, for example, mocked his hometown Hawks because they were selling Bryant shirts in the Hawks' team store.
I would think that's good for the local economy.
But Schultz made fun of it, noting Bryant shirts were going for $30 and Al Horford shirts were selling for $25. The Bryant shirts sold out before the start of the game.
Schultz went a step further and tried to rub it in the noses of the Hawks, mentioning the Bryant shirts to Jamal Crawford.
"In the arena?'' Crawford said. "Are you serious? Unbelievable.''
I don't understand why columnists try to stir up controversy.
I told Kobe I bought four of them for myself, and he laughed. In L.A., as you know, we just all get along.