With the Los Angeles Lakers finally putting together a stretch in which they look like a cohesive unit, it's time to look at what they have in store for us over the next few weeks to see if they can build some momentum.
While their win over the Trail Blazers was suspect (something about shooting 34 free throws to Portland's 12), there's no reason to discount these two wins, especially with the way their two best players have handled themselves.
Kobe Bryant alternated old-Kobe mode with new-Kobe mode, scoring 16 against Boston and 40 against the Trail Blazers, while Dwight Howard had two solid games, averaging more than 21 points and 14 rebounds.
In the most important thing that's happened since the All-Star break, Howard has finally started to take some accountability for the way he's been playing this season, admitting to ESPN that he can do better:
You've got to have energy and I want to bring that energy every night. That's my job. They count on me to be that guy. I just know how much more effective I will be when I'm in better shape. And, unfortunately, it's cost us a lot of games. ...
I knew that would be a process. The better shape I'm in, the more active I can be and the more I'm able to do on the floor. But it was a struggle at first because I just didn't have it in the tank, especially on defense.
That will be key in any kind of run the Lakers may or may not have in them. It's not enough to look at the team and admit that they haven't done enough collectively; they have to realize their individual faults.
While dwelling on what has ailed them in the past may seem counterproductive, it's a terrific way to have some accountability at last.
If we're going to assume that the old Lakers team full of infighting, finger-pointing and lazy basketball is more or less dead now that they realize how dire the situation is, we can also assume that they are a better team than they were a month ago.
What's really going to determine whether the Lakers' current momentum is real or not is their next handful of games, especially those coming up immediately.
Next up for Lakers is a tough back-to-back set: Flying to DAL tomorrow, then 10 a.m. game Sunday before altitude struggle in DEN on Monday.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) February 23, 2013
The Lakers must win one of these games, and winning both would prove a lot to the many remaining doubters.
Los Angeles then has home games against the Minnesota Timberwolves (which it beat during the Grammy road trip) and Atlanta Hawks, followed by road games against the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Hornets.
A 4-2 record in that stretch would get the Lakers back to .500, and something better would not only be impressive but would doubtless thrust them within inches of the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff picture.
Should the Lakers squeeze their way into the playoffs, it's not an empty accomplishment. Their second-half comeback would mean they have proved their worth over some very good teams, and they would end up being a surprisingly formidable first-round opponent.
...I think some of you are underestimating how formidable Lakers will be as 1st-round opponent IF they are playing well enough to make it.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) February 23, 2013
In totality, Los Angeles has just 26 games left this season with just 12 games at home. Beyond that, it plays half its games against teams that are currently above .500.
It's going to be a difficult run, and the Lakers have dug themselves quite a hole, but it's definitely more believable that they can make the playoffs than it was just a few weeks ago.
What's more, the Lakers play the Houston Rockets in their final game of the season, which could be the deciding game for the eighth seed, if we're lucky.
While it's still too early to believe that the turnaround is for real, it will only be a few more games until we can make a judgment.