The Los Angeles Lakers are running out of time to make their final push toward a postseason berth.
In order to salvage what's become one of the most disastrous seasons in the history of professional sports, they'll have to find success in an area that's eluded them all season.
Friday night's 111-100 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves inside the Target Center in Minneapolis gave the Lakers just their sixth win in 22 road games. It was also the second game of a season-deciding seven-game venture away from the Staples Center, a trip that began with Wednesday's frustrating 92-86 defeat at the hands of the lowly Phoenix Suns.
The Timberwolves might not be the best barometer, though, considering the Lakers' dominance in the teams' meetings:
Lakers have won 20 straight games vs Timberwolves. That's the longest active win streak for any team vs a single opponent— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 2, 2013
Still, it wasn't the win itself that rejuvenated the fanbase. It was the way the Lakers notched the victory.
Thanks to another stat sheet-stuffing performance from Kobe Bryant (17 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists), the Lakers emerged victorious for the fourth time in their last five games. His effort improved the team to 7-2 when he's dished at least at eight assists, and it pushed Bryant into previously uncharted waters:
Kobe Bryant has 8+ assists in 5 straight games for the 1st time in his career.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 2, 2013
Bryant has forced his teammates to elevate their games, no longer simply giving them a front-row seat at the Kobe scoring show:
Blake on TWC on KBs new role: "kind of just makes everyone play a little bit harder b/c they know they’re going to touch the basketball."— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) February 2, 2013
With Dwight Howard still bothered by his right shoulder, Pau Gasol returned to the starting lineup. He led all scorers with 22 points, matched Bryant for the most rebounds on the night and tallied a Howard-esque three blocks along the way.
Think it was simply a coincidence that Gasol put forth his best effort in months? The importance of getting back in with the starters for the first time since Jan. 20 was not lost on the big man:
Pau on starting: "It was a good feeling. Like the good ol' days." Smile.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) February 2, 2013
Was this latest victory a positive sign in the Lakers' reclamation project, or was it simply another fleeting moment of reprieve in a season overflowing with disappointments?
That answer should become clearer over the next seven days.
The Lakers have Saturday off, then return to the hardwood for Sunday's game with the 18-29 Detroit Pistons. Tuesday kicks off a stretch of three games in four nights, with road visits to the 28-19 Brooklyn Nets, the 23-23 Boston Celtics and the 11-34 Charlotte Bobcats.
An optimistic view sees the Lakers capturing three wins among those four games, but realistically the team may need to take all four. The final stop is a Feb. 10 trip to South Beach for a showdown with the defending champion (29-14) Miami Heat.
It might take more than a pass-happy Bryant to knock off the champs, no matter how effective those passes have been of late.
The Lakers have already defeated the Pistons, Nets and Bobcats this season (although all three games were played in L.A.), and they have yet to square off with the Celtics. The Heat, meanwhile, handed the Lakers a 99-90 home loss back on Jan. 17.
Then again, perhaps the Heat aren't the daunting opponent than they may appear to be on the schedule:
The Miami Heat would be 5th in the West.— chris palmer (@ESPNChrisPalmer) February 2, 2013
A 4-1 stint to close out their East Coast swing would push the Lakers to 25-27. It's certainly not where they thought they would be at this time of the season, but it still keeps them relevant in the playoff chase.
But the road trip can be even more successful than just wins and losses. Life on the road isn't easy; there's a reason that only eight teams have winning road records on the year.
The "us against them" mentality fostered in opposing arenas could be exactly what this Lakers team needs to take the next step in this transitional period. Anything that can bring them together is a frightening possibility for Western Conference foes, given this team's talent-laden roster.
Once back home, they'll entertain the Suns on Feb. 12, then "host" their Staples Center rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers, on the Thursday night before the All-Star break. Assuming the Suns can't find that same spoiling magic in L.A. that they had in Phoenix, the Lakers could move within a game of .500.
How many of the seven games left before the All-Star break will the Lakers win?
Carrying a .500 mark into the break is clearly ideal, but it won't be an easy task. The Clippers game could come down to which team boasts the healthier version of its injured superstar (Howard for the Lakers, Chris Paul for the Clippers).
For all of the drama that has surrounded the Lakers, a .500 record could finally give this club the clean slate it's been searching for over the past two months.
Optimistic? Yes. Unrealistic? Possibly.
But impossible? Not by a long shot.
If Bryant continues to balance his offense, Howard finds trust in his shoulder, Gasol maintains his focus and coach Mike D'Antoni stays out of the way, this might actually happen.
Clearly, that's plenty of ifs—more than the front office, players and fans could've ever imagined.
But it's those very same ifs keeping hope alive in Lakers nation.