There were plenty of blunders earlier this season -- and, yes, some as recently as last month -- but the Lakers finally see something ahead of them.
It's not the finish line. It's the staggering San Antonio Spurs.
The Lakers suddenly have a Texas-sized carrot in front of them for their final nine games: San Antonio is down to a 31/2-game lead atop the Western Conference after another loss Monday.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 30, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Lakers' playoff seeding: An article in the March 29 Sports section about the Lakers' playoff prospects said the winner of the Lakers' March 31 game with the Dallas Mavericks would own the first playoff tiebreaker between the teams. In fact, the Lakers currently hold the first tiebreaker because they are a division winner.
The Spurs' four-game losing streak is entirely injury-driven, their Big Three limping a lot these days, be it Tim Duncan (sprained ankle), Manu Ginobili (bruised thigh) or Tony Parker (bruised knee). All three sat out Monday's home loss to Portland.
The Lakers have noticed.
"There's a lot of motivation," guard Shannon Brown said. "We know their situation. We know they're trying to get home court. They've been playing well all year. If we can catch them and get home court, that'll be the best thing."
It would require a complete collapse by the Spurs, though the Lakers haven't been this close to them since before losing three in a row at the end of November.
The Lakers (53-20) have won a well-documented 15 of 16 since the All-Star break, when they trailed San Antonio by nine games. The 15-1 surge also has allowed them to pull even with Chicago for the NBA's second-best record.
San Antonio's next four games are against teams that are in the playoffs or in the hunt: Boston, Houston, Phoenix and Atlanta. The Spurs (57-17) also play the Lakers at Staples Center on April 12.
Duncan's injury is being called day-to-day, but it seems more week-to-week. Ginobili could not finish Sunday's loss to Memphis and Parker joined them on the sideline Monday.
It was Parker who tried to sound in control after the Spurs fell to Memphis.
"We don't have time to worry about [injuries]," he told reporters. "Timmy is not coming back any time soon, so we just have to keep playing and make sure we pound that rock. Hopefully, it will go our way."
Not all the Lakers are showing interest in the Spurs.
"It doesn't matter to us whether we catch them or not," Kobe Bryant said. "We try to win every game. If we catch them, so be it. If we don't, so be it."
Before the Lakers took the court Sunday against New Orleans, Derek Fisher walked past a TV in the locker room just as Memphis was finishing off San Antonio. Fisher showed no expression. In fact, he didn't even stop.
For what it's worth, the Lakers trail the Spurs in the season series, 2-1.
For all the criticism heaped upon them before the All-Star break, not to mention the angst of a fan base that yelped with every surprising loss, the Lakers are now on pace to surpass their victory total from last season (57).
They could even hit the impressive 60-victory plateau, which would give them a better record than they had in the last two steps of their "three-peat" in the early 2000s.
The Lakers face a more immediate threat this week, a Dallas team that doesn't seem to realize it's been without Caron Butler for almost three months.
The Mavericks (52-21) are only a game behind the Lakers for second in the West. The teams play each other for a third and final time Thursday at Staples Center.
The season series is tied at 1-1, with Thursday's winner owning the first playoff tiebreaker.
"We want to secure our spot, so beating them would pretty much do that for us," Andrew Bynum said.
Times correspondent Mark Medina contributed to this report.