LOS ANGELES — The Lakers should win every game in which the PA announcer at Staples Center mispronounces multiple opposing players’ names.
Because really, if you can’t beat Jose Barrera, Alexey Shveeed and Greg Stemma, what’s the point?
On Thursday night, the Lakers did just that, their play signifying as much as any flubbed pronunciations that the Timberwolves were not worthy. Not to break their 21-game losing streak at the hands of the Lakers, the longest such active head-to-head streak in the NBA, not to stop Kobe and company on offense, not any of it. The Lakers ended February with a win, and a resounding one at that, 116-94. But whatever statement such a game might have made is muted, if only by the passage of time.
February is over. That leaves one month and another two weeks and change, and then it’s playoff time. February is over, and the Lakers still have not reached .500, not for the first time since Dec. 28, exactly 62 days ago. Sixty-two days and counting, that is, because at 29-30, there’s still time before the slate is wiped clean, still even more time before the Lakers can put a little bit of space between themselves and .500, the space they’ll need to be a playoff team in the West.
Because yes, the p-word is creeping back into the equation in Los Angeles after this 12-5 stretch and the Lakers’ renewed confidence. A win like Thursday’s continues that narrative, that hope, no matter that it came against the Timberwolves, a wildly shorthanded team on the road, without its superstar in Kevin Love and much of its primary supporting cast in Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko — and that’s just the surface of Minnesota’s health problems. So yes, the Lakers kicked the Timberwolves while they were down, just as they had to do, just as any other year’s Lakers would have been assumed to do 99 times out of 100.
But this year, it can still be something of a novelty, an encouragement, because how else is this strange sideshow of a team going to make it to the playoffs it was proclaiming just five months ago it would dominate? It has to beat the Timberwolves, has to beat every other team of that caliber, has to win as many of its home games — and away ones, too, for that matter — as humanly possible.
So that mattered, all 116 points, all 13 of Kobe Bryant’s field goals and 13 of Dwight Howard’s rebounds, all 52 of Los Angeles’ bench points. It mattered because the Lakers looked something like what they should be, an offensive juggernaut, no matter that they should look like such against the Heat and the Thunder and all those other teams they were supposed to compete with, not just against the Timberwolves and their ilk. It mattered — but there’s a definite shadow cast upon it all.
The shadow is time. The game ended just minutes before March, minutes before the month that marks the NBA’s most important stretch begins, and after the game, that notion seeped into the conversation.
When asked what his team needed most, Steve Nash did not mince words: “We need time. We need time together. … We need enough time together to turn the corner, to make improvements instead of continuing taking steps back. I think that improvement’s been a long time coming, but it’s only the beginning.”
When asked where he thinks his team stands, Bryant, who scored a game-high 33, gave a clear picture: “We’re getting a little bit closer… to striking distance, where you start watching the standings a little more.”
And when he summed up the game, coach Mike D’Antoni had his own take on progress: “This is not a great performance. We did our job. We’re getting better.”
Unite those three takes, and there’s a murky picture. Each is correct: Nash in that the team needs time to jell and find its flow, Bryant in that it’s still not quite in the hunt, and D’Antoni in refusing to oversell what his team had just done. That leaves the Lakers, then, in an almost desperate position, fighting against the clock and hoping to accelerate the process of coming together that it delayed for months, thinking about the playoffs and perhaps assigning more import to a humdrum regular-season win than they ever should.
Because what the month of March is going to entail in Los Angeles isn’t pretty. It might look as such on April 17, if this team that was supposed to be predestined for greatness somehow claws its way into the postseason, but it won’t have been, and what comes after — a seven-game series against likely a one or two seed — won’t be, either. The Lakers, with their need for time, time, time, time on the court and time in practice and time in every sense of the word, are in definite danger of running out of gas. They’re going to be mustering every ounce of their energy to win in the coming weeks, games through which many playoff teams will coast, and Bryant acknowledged the import of protecting their home court down the stretch. In doing so, though, the Lakers, already injured, will wear down further — barring some miraculous turnaround, at least, or assuming that all the positives that have emerged in recent days are trends, rather than flukes.
On Thursday, D’Antoni had accrued a good enough lead in the fourth quarter to rest his key players. Nash finished with 24 minutes, Bryant just 31, and the coach was quick to point that out postgame. These are the games he and his players need, he said, to conserve energy toward the end of the season. It won’t always be this easy, though, won’t always be the Timberwolves with nine healthy players. And so resting will be tougher, and old joints will be sorer, and suddenly Bryant’s comments from earlier in the season about his team being too old are sounding a lot more dangerous than they seem after a resounding win.
Easy wins will come for these Lakers, and the future is looking brighter. Easy wins will come, but the cost remains uncertain. It’s the tough wins they’ll need to muster, the rest they’ll need to somehow create, the time they’ll need to maximize. It’s a long road ahead, but no one is denying it, and on nights like Thursday, it can seem close to doable.
As he reclined at his locker postgame, Bryant was as strangely sage as he’s been throughout most of this nightmare season. He glossed over nothing, and in the same breath as the biting truth about the continued need to improve, he paused.
“We have a nice little challenge ahead of us,” he said, his voice calm, his expression passive. A nice little challenge.
And that’s when you have to wonder how this team won’t make it, with Bryant terming his team’s sizeable hole just a nice little challenge, nothing more.