LOS ANGELES — For the first time this season, the Lakers are two games over the .500 mark after Sunday’s 90-81 win over the Chicago Bulls at Staples Center.
Well, it’s true that the Bulls are still missing their league MVP, Derrick Rose, and were also without Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton and Taj Gibson. How big of a win could it really be? The Lakers beat a team missing four of its top eight players, and they’re still just 33-31 and certainly not guaranteed a playoff spot.
Actually, it’s a very big deal, because just a few months ago some players felt that it might never happen.
“That seemed pretty evident in December when we were struggling,” said guard Steve Nash, who had 16 points and four assists Sunday. “It wasn’t just the winning and losing, it just seemed like we were spinning our wheels. We were fighting to find our commonality as a team, and we didn’t know if it would ever happen for us.
“It was definitely a tough time for this team.”
Nash says he can’t even point to a date when things began to turn, but many on the team point to the team meeting held before the game with the Grizzlies in Memphis on January 23. The Lakers ended up losing that night, but whatever happened in that locker room seemed to revitalize a team that was on the brink of oblivion with a record of 17-24 before the meeting.
They’ve won eight of their last 10 and 15 of 21 since the loss to the Grizzlies, and forward Antawn Jamison credits an on-court meeting of the minds between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.
Bryant had 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds Sunday, while Howard dominated underneath with 21 rebounds – seven offensive – to go with 16 points.
“Honestly, that’s the only reason we’re even sitting here with the record we have right now,” said Jamison, who scored six points off the bench.
“We finally have chemistry. Things a really, really positive right now. Guys are smiling at each other instead of rolling eyes at each other when a mistake was made. Kobe and Dwight being on the same page is a huge part of that.
“The Big Fella is playing phenomenally; setting screens, being aggressive whenever the ball comes into the paint. And Kobe’s been Kobe. So, if we’re going to have success, it because of the way those two have come together, having the chemistry they have as of late.
“They’re our two superstars, and as they go, we go.”
Howard says that he’s now just getting into real basketball shape, and it allows him to be more active on a consistent basis. But he also acknowledged that his relationships in the locker room are improved and it makes him feel like the old, fun-loving Superman.
“Sure makes a big difference when everybody has everybody else’s back,” said Howard, echoing Jamison’s thoughts. “The only place it really matters is inside this room, and even though it took us a while to get there, we have it now. We communicate better and we keep each other accountable, and it’s working right now.
“We want to win a championship and we are going to go out every night and put the effort into getting it.”
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is eagerly awating Rose’s return to his 35-28 team, but he wouldn’t make excuses for a depleted roster. Instead, he complimented Howard and the Lakers’ D.
“He set the tone in the first half,” Thibodeau said of Howard. “He dominated the paint with shot-blocking, rebounding and physicality. … Our level of intensity has to go up. We’ve got to do the right things, so we’ve got to improve.”
The Lakers know the feeling.
1. The Lakers head for Orlando to face Howard’s former team on Tuesday. Magic fans are still extremely upset with him for a) forcing a trade and b) subsequent comments belittling his former teammates. Howard later said he didn’t mean to trash his old team, but the damage keeps getting done. Howard is a really nice guy who wants to be liked by everyone. He just doesn’t use the best of judgment sometimes. The media will be torching him from the second he gets to Orlando late Monday afternoon and the crowd will boo him as loudly as their vocal chords allow. Howard could shut it all down with a few demonstrative dunks and blocked shots, but I think he’ll be so worried about the reaction that he’ll end up having one of his worst games of the season. Just down the road from The Happiest Place on Earth – Disney World – it’s likely to be a very unhappy night for Howard and the Lakers.
2. I’d love to hear how Bryant really feels about all the consternation Howard is going through. As mentally tough a competitor as there’s ever been, Bryant probably wants to grab Howard and tell him to knock it off and go out with the intention of destroying the Magic. I can just hear Kobe: “They traded you. The fans have bad-mouthed you. So has the media. You’re a Laker now. Who cares what they think? Go out and kick somebody’s a**.” Who knows? Maybe that’s exactly what he’ll do.
3. If Derrick Rose comes back and performs anywhere close to normal, I’m going on the record to say the Bulls will be Miami’s biggest obstacle to winning back-to-back NBA titles. With Amar’e Stoudemire having another knee surgery, the Knicks will be lucky to get him back by the time the playoffs roll around. They’re not going to win without him. Rose is one of those magnificent players who can change the outcome of any game or series. And the Bulls have a talented supporting cast that could pull off the upset.