This is the moment (or seven) the Los Angeles Lakers have been waiting for.
It's also a spot they shouldn't even be in.
I'm of course referring to the seven-game road trip Los Angeles is prepared to embark on. The same road trip that will truly define how far the Lakers have come as a team and essentially write the narrative for the rest of their season.
And per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, the Lakers know it:
“It’s huge. Absolutely huge,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “It can be a really really great trip for us, a great trip for us or an absolutely [expletive] trip.”
Heading into the first game of their travels against the Phoenix Suns, Kobe Bryant and crew have won three straight. The Black Mamba himself has assumed the roll of facilitator, Steve Nash is now primarily a scorer and Dwight Howard is actually sporting a genuine smile.
But will the Lakers emerge at the other end of this journey in a similar state? Or will the headway they've made crumble under the weight of what could prove to be unreachable expectations?
We've barely reached the halfway point of the NBA's regular season, but the ultimate fate of this Lakers team rests in the outcomes of their next seven bouts.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
Kobe Bryant has been playing like a Black Mamba on a mission.
Or should I say like a point guard on a mission?
For the three games prior to Los Angeles' upcoming trip, Bryant averaged 13 assists per game. Just for kicks and giggles, I feel the need to note that in that same span, Steve Nash averaged just four.
We're bearing witness to a new kind of Kobe, an evolved Mamba, if you will. No longer is he trying to lead the Lakers by virtue of volume shooting. Instead, he's opted to the play part of distributor.
And you know what? It's worked.
Heading into the road trip, Los Angeles have posted a record of 9-4 when Kobe dishes out seven or more assists. The Lakers are also undefeated (4-0) when he hands out 10 or more.
This team (and Kobe) has finally found a recipe for success, and Bryant will be damned before he deviates from this new-found blueprint at all.
Kobe's going to be dropping dimes like he has Rajon Rondo whispering in his ear.
In the three consecutive wins preceding the Lakers' seven-game expedition, Kobe Bryant came within one rebound of a triple-double twice and within two rebounds of another once.
Bryant's a mere carom or two off the rim away from a complete explosion.
Clad with his role as a facilitator, Kobe has instantly become a daily triple-double threat. He's always been a scorer and his rebounding has always been impressive for a guard as well. But now that he's passing too, forget about it.
Just as LeBron James and Rajon Rondo are perpetual triple-doublers, so is Bryant.
His shift in priorities has him playing the most well-rounded basketball of his career. And as we acknowledged before, it has yielded results, so he's not going to change.
Which is bad news for every one of the seven different defenses Kobe will be going up against.
I give you, Earl Clark.
Clark was an afterthought in the Dwight Howard trade and he continues to be neglected by opposing defenses. And he's capitalizing off of both.
The 25-year-old swingman has upped his season averages to 6.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He's shooting 49.2 percent from the floor, 61.1 percent from deep and has raised his PER to an above-average 15.6
Most importantly, though, he remains a fixture in Los Angeles' starting lineup (take that, Pau). He's proved to be the stretch 4 Mike D'Antoni has so desperately craved, and the boys in purple and gold are a much deeper unit because of him.
I mean, not only does he score, but he rebounds and defends with purpose. I'd be surprised if Howard himself wasn't suddenly smitten by him.
Fresh off a 20-point performance against the Hornets, it's time for us to buy into Clark as a legitimate talent.
Come the end of this seven-game road trip, though, it will be time for us to buy into him as a legitimate piece to Los Angeles' future puzzle.
The Lakers are winning, but Pau Gasol still isn't happy.
Though the big man spent his first six games coming off the bench averaging 16 points on 60.7 percent shooting, a seven-point performance against the Hornets set him off.
As Los Angeles embarks on the craziness that is an extended leave from Hollywood, expect Gasol to put up numbers similar to those 16 points a night. Going up against second units allows him to play center—where he's posting a 25.9 PER per 48 minutes this season—and absolutely dominate on the offensive end.
Can I promise he won't have any games like the one against New Orleans?
Absolutely not, and I wouldn't dream of conjuring up such a prediction.
But I can tell you that those performances will be few and far between as he sees more looks in the post.
What I can also tell you is that no matter how much or well Gasol plays, and no matter how often the Lakers win, he's not going to be satisfied. Not as long as he's coming off the bench.
Though he's preached individual sacrifice, he appears unwilling to make concessions of his own.
A reality that isn't going to change by this trip's end.
Allow me to clarify.
Most will certainly care that Pau Gasol plays well on this junket, but no one is going to care how he feels about not starting.
The fact is, the entire team has had to make sacrifices over the last few games. Unlike Gasol, his comrades have embraced such compromises.
Kobe Bryant is enthralled at the prospect of playing point guard, Steve Nash is ready and willing to play off the ball and Dwight Howard no longer cares how much he scores.
All anyone in Tinseltown cares about is winning. They don't care how they do it, just as long as they do.
Except for Gasol, who continues to bicker amongst himself.
Personally, I don't see his unpleasantries lasting much longer, either. I won't go as far as to say he'll be gone by the end of this road trip, yet the more he complains, the more I'm convinced his days with the Lakers are numbered.
Just because Dwight Howard no longer cares if he scores, that doesn't mean he's not going to. Because he is. A lot.
Though Howard is averaging just 16.7 points per game heading into Los Angeles' excursion, he dropped 24 against the Hornets, just before the Lakers departed.
It takes but one look at the way he's moving to see he's regaining some of his mobile swag and that he and Kobe Bryant truly are on the same page. And as that chemistry continues to develop, we're going to see more lobs, more pick-and-rolls and more of Howard putting that orange thing through the other orangey round thing.
We're also going to see more of Hack-a-Howard unfortunately, too. With him scoring more, defenses will elect to send him to the line more than the 9.5 times they already are.
I toiled with asserting Howard would connect on at least 60 percent of his free throws during this crusade, but after looking at his 49.6 percent conversion rate, I decided that's not bold, just stupid.
Still, horrific free-throw shooting and all, I wouldn't be surprised to watch Howard average 20 or more points a night as the Lakers continue this jaunt.
During the Lakers' three-game winning streak, they have allowed more than 100 points just once.
Big deal, right?
Actually, yes, it is.
For a team that ranks 20th in points allowed per 100 possessions (106.7), holding a top-11 offense in the Utah Jazz and the league's most potent offense in the Oklahoma City Thunder to under 100 points is a huge deal.
Watching the Lakers defend, it has become clear they're doing a better job fighting over screens, rotating and communicating in general. I wouldn't go as far as to call them a defensive juggernaut, but the execution is (finally) there.
How much so?
To the point where Los Angeles holds its opponents to less than 100 points four times in the next seven games.
Yeah, I went there.
Color me an optimist.
Four of the Lakers' next seven games are played against lottery-bound teams.
Los Angeles faces a confused Suns faction, a decimated Minnesota Timberwolves team, a wildly inconsistent Pistons group and an abominable Charlotte Bobcats clan. Those are all going to be wins, so mark it down.
The other three contests come against a teetering Brooklyn Nets council, a withering Boston Celtics squad and a cold-blooded Miami Heat convocation. Assuming you read the beginning correctly, that means the Lakers are going to win at least two of these games.
And yes, I'm serious.
Just as serious as I am about...
...the Lakers beating the Heat at the American Airlines Arena.
Demand I have my head checked if you must, but remember, Los Angeles played Miami pretty tight the first time around. LeBron James and company emerged from Staples Center with a 99-90 victory, yet the game was much closer than even that.
With Kobe Bryant essentially running point, the scouting report on him completely changes, to the point of incomprehensible. Miami's sporadic defense isn't going to be able to contain him or the open teammates he hits.
I understand that the Heat currently have the best home record of any team in the league, but by the time this game rolls around, the Lakers could be riding a nine-game winning streak.
Truth be told, Los Angeles' matchup against Boston scares me far more than this one. The Celtics control the pace of the game better than the Heat, while the latter tends to favor speed over execution.
By no means am I belittling how talented a team Miami is. It's just that, on this night, I believe the Lakers, clad with a fresh perspective and new identity, will be the more talented ones. And thus conclude their road trip by making a statement.
One that confirms their rival as reality, not a fleeting facade.
There hasn't been much for Mike D'Antoni (or anyone in Los Angeles) to smile about these days, but that's all about to change.
Expectations and collective morale soared upon the Lakers' recent performances, but per J.A. Adande of ESPNLosAngeles.com, D'Antoni couldn't muster up anything similar after looking at his team's record.
But again, by the end of this trek, that will be then and a perpetually smirking, mustache-sporting D'Antoni will be the now.
This is the undertaking that will finally bring the Lakers utterly and completely together. This is the voyage that will show us Los Angeles' ship has been righted.
This is the mission that will culminate in the Lakers rising above .500 and never looking back.
Because you're going to need it.