It’s showing time for Lakers

Champs arrive with something to prove

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 31, 2010

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The NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers - six words that bring a Johnny Most-like fury to any Celtics fan - enter TD Garden this afternoon very close to being the team that will try to defend its title in the spring.

It’s Day 10 of a 13-day road trip for the Lakers, who were spoiled by an early-season home schedule that allowed them to pile up wins as well as confidence. So their 36-11 record may be a little deceiving, and that is not lost on the players or coaches.

The road trip began with a loss to Cleveland, the Lakers’ second loss to the Cavaliers in four weeks. That was followed by a 1-point loss at Toronto three days later. The record may be gaudy, but the Lakers are a team still trying to find themselves.

There are going to be nights such as Friday in Philadelphia, when their depth is just overwhelming. Kobe Bryant scored just 2 points in the first 24 minutes yet the Lakers owned a 9-point lead. There was never a question whether they would put away the struggling 76ers, just who would deliver the decisive blow.

After delivering a couple of flurries, Bryant handed that responsibility to Ron Artest, who drained two 3-pointers to seal the win. The Lakers are good enough not only to coast to road wins, but also to use the 48 minutes as an opportunity for struggling players such as Artest to get untracked.

That was the dominant topic in the postgame locker room. The Lakers were hardly giddy over a win against a 15-31 team, but they know that Artest needs to be offensively confident and sound for them to make another title run.

Artest realizes he is a focal point for the Lakers. If he struggles, Lakers fans will lament the fact that the team allowed Trevor Ariza to sign with the Houston Rockets and brought in Artest for the same money. If Artest flourishes, general manager Mitch Kupchak will be seen as brilliant for adding a veteran defender and accomplished scorer.

“I was kind of questioning my age for a while,’’ said Artest, 30. “I was a great defender at one time, but the last couple of years . . .’’

But Artest has been carried at times by the Lakers’ depth, which may separate Los Angeles from the other elite teams in the NBA. Artest accepted the mid-level exception for an opportunity to win his first NBA title and understands that popping 3-pointers or slashing to the basket are not his priorities. He is there to defend the opposition’s best player, such as Paul Pierce today. That relieves pressure from Bryant, allowing him to concentrate on offense.

Playing hard again
The Lakers spent approximately 40 games establishing an identity. Pau Gasol missed the first 11 games with a strained right hamstring and six more in January with a strained left hamstring. Artest started slowly. The bench, including Lamar Odom, failed to meet expectations. Yet, behind Bryant, the Lakers still raced out to a 23-5 start before being thumped by Cleveland on Christmas.

Since that 102-87 loss, which drew the ire of Lakers fans - they tossed foam “No. 1’’ hands on the court in the fourth quarter - Los Angeles is just 13-6.

But the recent slippage, the players said, is over.

“The game that we lost in Toronto [Jan. 24] I was happy because we played hard,’’ Artest said. “There’s games that we won and we didn’t play that hard. So the last four games we have played hard.

“And that game in Toronto, we hadn’t played hard in so long, we didn’t know how to win playing hard. So now we are getting in the rhythm of playing hard, feeling that fatigue.

“By April, by March, I can see us really buckling down and being that team. But I liked how we played the last four games, we played hard.’’

Bryant has never been accused of holding back, and he carried the Lakers through the first 30 games, which is no surprise. He has singlehandedly maintained the Lakers as the top team in the Western Conference while his teammates healed or recovered from the hangover of last season, and now they are catching up.

“The last four games, we have played with a lot of energy, a lot of effort, and the important thing is to try to sustain that,’’ said Bryant, who is averaging 1.4 more points and 2.3 minutes per game than he did in 2008-09. “It’s time to pick it up, period, just do it.

“You want to have the best record. You want to win as many games as you can and you want to be playing as well as you can going into the postseason so you put all of that in the pot.’’

Asked if the Lakers are the best team in the league when at their best, he said, “Yeah, I would say so. I would definitely say so.’’

Coming together
The Lakers have approached this road trip as an opportunity to galvanize and prepare themselves for the postseason. They are 4 1/2 games ahead of Denver for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and should coast to the top spot.

But 10 of their 11 losses have come against teams with winning records, and the two losses to Cleveland have served as motivation. While the Celtics have won at Cleveland, beaten Orlando, and won at San Antonio, the Lakers’ most impressive victory may be a win at Dallas.

The home slate was filled with cupcakes, but the Lakers consider the remaining schedule an opportunity to test themselves in hostile environments - such as TD Garden this afternoon - that bring the players together.

“They seem reliant on each other,’’ said coach Phil Jackson. “A certain sense that they’ve got to carry a team attitude out on the court against a crowd that decidedly wants to see them lose. It’s always good.’’

Like other title contenders, however, the Lakers are simultaneously trying to clinch the top seed and preserve themselves for a long playoff run. Celtics coach Doc Rivers has said playoff seeding is secondary in comparison to keeping a team healthy and peaking in April.

The Lakers have faced this quandary for the past several years, and their approach is different from the Celtics’.

“To me, preparing for the playoffs is about winning every game,’’ veteran guard Derek Fisher said, “and having that mentality, at least, that every time you step out on the court, you’re playing to win. You know you are not going to win 100 percent of your games, but to develop that mentality that’s required to win in the playoffs starts in the regular season.

“But I do think we’ve developed a little bit more of a connectiveness on this trip and we still have two very tough games to go [Boston and Memphis] and these two games could really decide how the trip really went.’’

The Lakers we see today against the Celtics are inching closer to being a finished product. They seem just as uncertain as Boston, which has dropped two straight games. The teams are viewing each other as a measuring stick for midseason progress, understanding that they could meet again in four months, when it really matters.

“They are fighting to get back to where they once were,’’ Odom said. “We want to be perfect. But right now, we’re not too far away. Once you see everybody contributing offensively in a rhythm with the triangle [offense], and we’re beating teams with our pass, just cutting them, that’s when we’ll get it rolling and we’re not too far from that.’’

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