Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are facing an up hill battle
There's no question the Los Angeles Lakers are playing better basketball. If this were early in the season, the team would be near the top of the standings in the Western Conference.
But it's almost March, and the Lakers are desperately trying to make up for lost ground that's threatened to bury them and their season before they get to the playoffs in April.
The Lakers have won seven of their last 11 games and, before losing Monday night's track meet to the Denver Nuggets, were on a three-game winning streak that included big emotional victories against the Dallas Mavericks and at home versus the Boston Celtics.
Kobe Bryant poured in 38 points against Dallas and seemed to turn back the hands of time as he took over the game in the fourth quarter and couldn't miss.
"It's just what I'm supposed to do," Bryant said to the L.A. Time's Mike Bresnahan. "It's about that time."
But time may be catching up with Bryant's team.
You get an odd feeling watching the Lakers; a feeling that they might make the playoffs, but if they do, will be dispensed pretty quickly.
L.A. is battling but, after losing to Denver, are still just 28-30. The Lakers need a small miracle and a lot of wins just to qualify for the postseason. And they'll need to overcome some pretty major bumps and road blocks along the way just to get there.
The Lakers are looking up at eight very strong teams in the Western Conference. At 28-30, they are three games back of Houston and really need some help from the opposition.
Time is not on the side of Los Angeles. After falling to Denver, the current No. 5 seed in the West, the Lakers return home with just 24 games left in the regular season.
Talk about digging a deep hole. Before getting shellacked by the Nuggets, the Lakers had won three in a row and seven of 10.
But what they really need is to get very, very hot over the final 24. The Lakers need to go at least 17-7 or 18-6 down the stretch and hope the Rockets fall apart.
The other team that could possibly fade are the Utah Jazz, currently the seventh seed at 31-26. Like L.A., the Jazz are a bad road team (10-19) but their 21-7 home-court mark is much better than the Lakers' (18-11).
In short, the Lakers need some help from the teams they are chasing, Houston and Utah. Like a long losing streak. Or an injury that knocks a key player out of the lineup for an extended period.
Otherwise, the new-look, can't-miss Lakers of 2012-13 will be spending their summer on the outside looking in.
The Denver Nuggets scored 78 points in the paint against the Lakers in their Monday night win at home. Those sort of eye-popping numbers just don't bode well for Los Angeles.
In that same game, Denver scored 33 fast-break points against the painfully slow Lakers. Meanwhile, L.A. had three fast-break points in the first half and zero in the second half.
According to TeamRankings.com, only Charlotte, Milwaukee and Portland give up more points in the paint than the Lakers, who average 44.4 per game. And that was before surrendering 78 on Monday to Denver.
A team just cannot surrender that many points in the paint and expect to survive into the playoff rounds.
It's one of the first things every little kid practices, and yet, there are NBA superstars who can't hit one to save their lives.
Heading into their game Monday with Denver, the Lakers were shooting just 69.5 percent from the charity stripe. And the biggest part of that problem can be attributed to the shoddy shooting of Dwight Howard.
Howard is making just 49 percent of his free throws. Monday, he may have cost the Lakers the game as he went just 3-of-14 from the line and the team lost 119-108. As a team, the Lakers missed 17 of their free throws.
As Mike D'antoni said to Lakers reporter Mike Trudell after the game via Time Warner Cable SportsNet: "Do the math. It just doesn't add up."
Remember this guy? The Lakers need him more than ever.
Injuries are a part of the game, and the good teams adapt and find ways to win.
But this year's Lakers seem to be just a little bit jinxed. They have not been 100 percent healthy the entire year, and it's still costing them victories late in the season.
Can you imagine if the Lakers had all of their pieces intact? A towering front line that included Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison and Metta World Peace.
Would the Lakers have stumbled, bumbled and fumbled their way out of the starting gates had Steve Nash not gone down and out for two months? And would the point position have also been that much stronger if Steve Blake did not sustain a major abdominal injury that kept him in street clothes for a couple of months?
We should have seen it coming when Blake stepped on a metal grate and punctured his right foot during training camp. Everybody had to get into the act: Kobe Bryant, Jordan Hill, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash all suffered some pretty serious injuries. Only Bryant, who hurt his foot in the preseason, was able to avoid missing regular-season games.
The Lakers could really use Gasol and Hill now, especially on defense where Howard is being asked to do most of the work in the post.
At this point in the season, the Lakers cannot afford many, if any, letdowns like they did on Monday in Denver.
But it was obvious that they were not ready to start the second game of a back-to-back in the Mile High City after going all out to defeat the Mavericks in Dallas the day before on national television.
Chalk some of that up to the fact that the Lakers are one of the oldest teams in the NBA, and quick, fast-paced, athletic teams like the Nuggets can take advantage of that.
Age and a lack of athleticism have been problems for the Lakers all season.
When asked by ESPN's Dave McMenamin why the Lakers lacked energy all year, the 34-year-old Bryant said:
Cause we're old as s---. What do you want? We just got to figure out how to play when we don't have that energy. We got to change things up a little bit defensively. We got to figure out what we want to do offensively, figure out what we want to do on nights when we don't have those legs or have that energy.
That was on New Year's Day, just after the Lakers had lost 103-99 to the Philadelphia 76ers at home. It's almost two months later, and the Lakers aren't any younger. And the season is quickly getting away from them.
The schedule for L.A. gets tougher before it gets a little easier. The team will play 10 of its 15 games in March away from Staples Center, including a three-game and four-game road trip with three of those games being back to back.
Nothing is impossible, and the Lakers are within striking distance of the playoffs. If the team makes the playoffs, it will have definitely earned its way there over the final third of the season.