Believe it or not, there is a road to the NBA Finals for the Los Angeles Lakers. And, yes, there is a Santa Claus. And sometimes, money grows on trees.
The Jekyll and Hyde Lakers are in typical late-season form: In other words, they are a big question mark.
The Lakers defeated a very good Clippers team, 113-108, Wednesday night at Staples Center. This time, there was enough passion, execution and maturity by the visitors to overcome a Clippers team that plays with reckless abandon and a youthful desire to embarrass their opponents.
If nothing else, this much-needed win by the Lakers provided a glimpse into what type of effort they'll need in the postseason to make a strong run.
Is there a road to the finals for Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Lakers this year? There is indeed, although it's filled with potholes and landmines in the form of such formidable foes as San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Denver, Memphis and, yes, the Clippers.
I've been saying it all year and will continue to do so until proven wrong: Game after game we are witness to two different Lakers teams—the passionate, hungry, well-executing bunch that can bury opponents with precision passing, aggressive post play and stifling defense; and the lackadaisical, foot-off-the-pedal group who thinks the game ends after 36 minutes and lacks that killer instinct that you need to win championships.
So, which Lakers team is about to emerge as the playoffs loom around the corner? I personally think this club needs to play with a slight chip on its collective shoulders in order to go deep. Otherwise, one of the teams in the Western Conference will absolutely take them out in the first or second round.
In the Clippers game, the Lakers took it up a notch as if they already were in the playoffs, as if this game had meaning, which it did. Despite some slam dunk antics of Blake Griffin on Pau Gasol and in spite of the 16 assists Chris Paul dished out, the Lakers kept their poise and focus and were the better team down the stretch.
Four Lakers finished the game in double figures with newcomer Ramon Sessions (16 points, eight assists, six rebounds and one technical foul) continuing to prove that he belongs and is just a notch below the league's elite point guards. On this night, he was the equal of Paul (22 points but a costly turnover late in the game), scoring on a daring layup that no one expected with 47 seconds left that put the Lakers up 108-104.
The Lakers can be tantalizing, no question about that. Kobe was more than efficient Wednesday, scoring 31 points on 13-of-19 from the field including a step back, 21-foot jumper with 24 seconds left that put the Lakers up 110-106 and pretty much iced the game.
Andrew Bynum came up huge—scoring 36 points on 13-of-20 shooting and was a plus-10 for the night. He also took a three-point shot at the end of the third quarter.
The Lakers can be an enigma, witnessed by their mediocre 12-15 record on the road and their propensity to let teams back into games after jumping out to big leads. They also have a weak bench and a coach who occasionally seems out of touch with his players and the decisions he makes on the court.
Wednesday night Magic Johnson said on the ESPN postgame show that the Lakers would most likely bow out of the playoffs after the second round. He believes both Oklahoma City and San Antonio are more complete teams and I would have to agree with him.
Yet I also agree with what he said next: "Kobe in the playoffs is unstoppable. He needs to be more of a leader this year because Derek Fisher was traded. All the guys need to step up, but they (Lakers) definitely have a shot."
But don't rule out the Lakers just yet. They are on the road, they have a map and they know the way to the promised land.
The big question remains: How badly do they want to get there?