The going hasn't been easy for the Los Angeles Lakers, and it's only going to get worse.
Technically, we're more than halfway through the season, but the Lakers still have time leading into the NBA All-Star break to show what kind of team they are.
At this juncture, it's unavoidable. Their brutal finish to the first half of the season is going to tell more about their current state and immediate future than any other point of the year.
Kobe Bryant continues to play through tendinitis in his right elbow, there is no timetable for Dwight Howard's return from another shoulder injury and Pau Gasol is going to be out for at least six weeks.
Ken Berger @KBergNBA
Pau Gasol has a partial tear of his plantar fascia and is expected to be out at least six weeks, league source tells @CBSSports.2013-2-6 22:35:36
Still, the Lakers must fight.
Injuries are a part of the NBA season, and teams can't simply fold, even if the number of injuries to one team borders on "unfair." So Los Angeles must continue to persevere, even if they have to do so with Howard and Gasol, and even Bryant.
But that battle isn't going to be an easy one. The Lakers play three more on the road, two of which come against the gritty Boston Celtics and explosive Miami Heat, before heading back to the Staples Center to face the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Bouts against the Celtics, Heat and Clippers are arduous enough, but the prospect of playing one or more of them without numerous key players only adds to the challenge.
The good news? At long last we, and the Lakers themselves, will have a concrete grasp on what kind of team they are. Adversity brings out the best in some and the worst in others, but the truth in all.
How a team responds to overwhelming conflict doesn't just speak volumes about their character or about their collective identity—it reveals it.
We've come to find out that the Clippers are only as strong as Chris Paul's knee and that the San Antonio Spurs are resilient as ever, even without Tim Duncan. And the same will inevitably be said of the Lakers, in some capacity.
If Los Angeles finishes out the season by winning the games it should and putting forth strong showings against the powerhouses they face, there's hope—hope in the Lakers' ability to make the playoffs and be more than just a super-team that never was.
Should the Lakers crumble under the weight of hardship, everything changes. Their hard-fought win over the Brooklyn Nets and recent string of road victories will mean next to nothing. Their egos will be bruised and their morale nonexistent. The playoffs will suddenly seem out of reach.
Brutal? Yes—but accurate.
These Lakers have proved little in the grand scheme of things. Earl Clark is a good find, Kobe will continue to carry his compadres in any way he sees fit and Steve Nash will do whatever's asked of him.
As the team's cohesion and efficacy continue to billow in the California wind, that means nothing. Too much inconsistency has existed and too many questions have been posed for them to have confirmed anything.
Where Los Angeles has affirmed nothing meaningful, though, it has finally found lucidity in knowing everything is about to change. Because nothing is going to change.
The Lakers have spent the entire season thus far waiting for the roster to straighten itself out. They've waited for Nash to be healthy, for Kobe to be healthy, for Howard to be healthy and Gasol to be healthy. They've waited for Pau to adjust to the part of a stretch forward, then waited some more for him to accept his role off the bench.
And they've waited and pined for the day these resolutions not only present themselves, but simultaneously align.
That day isn't coming.
At 34 and having played through a host of injuries previously, Bryant is never going to be fully healthy. And Howard and Gasol aren't going to magically heal during the course of the season, either. Nor is Pau about to accept his role off the bench.
Which means for the first time all year, the Lakers can stop waiting. This is the team they have, and these are the problems they are going to face. Neither are going anywhere, and as such, all excuses are futile.
Now is a time for the Lakers to buckle down, to accept the task at hand and begin what seems to be a numerically implausible uphill trek.
As Bryant himself told NBA TV (via John Schuhmann of NBA.com), it's time for the Laker to dig even deeper:
“I think going through what we went through at the start of the season has kind of gave us a little more fortitude, a little more grit,” Bryant told NBA TV. “So when these things happen to us, we don’t get discouraged. We just keep on battling and continue to think strategically.”
For the Lakers, these last five games to close out the first half of the season mean everything. They will write the narrative for the rest of the year and thus define the team in the process.
Proving that they're anything other than a free-falling washout is going to be tough, yet it's not impossible. But it's also completely feasible for the Lakers to prove they are the very thing that they didn't want to become—a failure.
Either way, we'll know soon enough. With the only certainty being that nothing about this season will ever be certain, Los Angeles will move forward.
The Lakers will take their potent offense and precarious defense into the next five games knowing that their will can no longer vacillate. Knowing that their collective identity is no longer up for interpretation, but rather unflagging judgment.
Knowing that the questions, pressures and disincentives they face aren't going to change.
And that their acceptance, their response to such immutable ambiguity, will determine who they are and where they're headed.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.