No guarantees (save for Kobe's) about Los Angeles' postseason hopes can be made, but with the way the Lakers have played as of late, Hollywood isn't short on optimism.
Winners of 14 of their last 20, the Lakers have not-so-subtly increased their playoff odds. They're presently just 1.5 games back of the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final Western Conference postseason slot.
Recent success then begs the question: What gives?
This isn't the same team that imploded against the Memphis Grizzlies and fell to a season-low eight games under .500. The Lakers are now playing like a postseason-caliber team.
And as they navigate through the final quarter of the season, attempting to put the finishing touches on a playoff berth once considered improbable, not enough stock can be placed into the "how" of it all.
Prior to the romping the Grizzlies dealt the Lakers, they held a "clear-the-air" meeting.
Following said meeting, the "air" remained polluted. Los Angeles fell to Memphis in less-than-valiant fashion, prompting further investigation into the team's supposed dysfunction.
Dwight Howard and Kobe couldn't play together. Steve Nash's age was showing. Pau Gasol and the Lakers needed to part ways. Mike D'Antoni's mustache was excessively ruffled.
It was utter chaos.
But then came a blowout victory over the Jazz, a thrilling win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and a third consecutive one against the New Orleans Hornets. Elation was tapered in a loss to the Phoenix Suns (one that saw the Lakers lose Howard), but the remnants of an actual character remained.
Even amid reports that Bryant was questioning Howard's commitment and toughness, the Lakers managed to rattle off another three-game win streak on the road.
Los Angeles fell to the Boston Celtics in Howard's return, but signs of further destruction were minimal. The Lakers regrouped and beat the Charlotte Bobcats before falling to the Miami Heat in somewhat admirable fashion.
By this point, it was clear the pandemonium had subsided. An atrocious loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was disconcerting and Gasol's continued absence was hardly comforting, but there wasn't internal jawing.
Both Howard and Bryant still have egos to satiate, but since that meeting in Memphis, the former has showed he's all-in for L.A. and Kobe has made that playoff pledge we alluded to earlier.
Should we go as far as to suggest Kobe and Howard, or even the entire Lakers team, are the best of friends?
Not at all. Chemistry is still an issue, but what's important is that the Lakers are now on the same page. Or as D'Antoni himself put it, in the same book (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
Things have certainly improved in Laker Land. So are the Lakers finally on the same page?
"Um, yeah, it's a big page," D'Antoni said with a laugh. "It's not a small page. It's kind of in the same book. We're in the same book right now. We're getting closer."
Finally, the Lakers are fighting toward a common goal. As they've become more familiar with one another, the mid-game collapses that have plagued them much of the season are now a rarity. In their most recent victory over the Hornets, there was a never-say-die aspect of their game (for the fourth quarter, at least) that wasn't there a few months back.
"It's taken awhile, but we've found it, and we're playing a lot better because of it," Bryant said (via McMenamin).
If they're to finish the season off with a postseason appearance, Kobe and crew need to ensure they never let it go.
Currently the Lakers are 11-20 on the road, the second-worst showing away from home of any team still realistically in the mix for a playoff berth.
They're also 2-15 on the road against teams above .500. You know, the same type of teams they will be facing in the playoffs.
Sorry road record in hand then, the Lakers needed to step it up at home. And they have.
Los Angeles is 10-1 in its last 11 home games, with five of the victories having come against teams with above .500 records.
Knowing that the Lakers have been particularly horrible against winning teams on the road, it has also been imperative for them to win the away games they're supposed to. And again, they have. They've won five out of their last six against sub-.500 teams away from the Staples Center.
Cashing in on every opportunity is of the utmost importance at this juncture. Every loss is crucial, potentially crippling, and if the Lakers are to beat the odds, they're going to have to hold their home court and find ways to win against inferior factions.
Over the last 20 games, that's what they've done.
Kobe Bryant's Changes
For nearly two decades, we've fancied Bryant strictly a scorer. For a small portion of this season, though, he was considered strictly a passer. Both versions of the Black Mamba had their advantages, but neither spurred overwhelmingly positive results.
A newly balanced Kobe has.
Watching as Bryant dished out double-digit assist totals while scoring fewer than 20 points was fun for a while, but soon enough, the opposition began to catch on. His passing lanes were being cut off and he was forced into contested jumpers. The unselfish jig was up.
Bryant has adjusted, though. He hasn't been strictly a passer or scorer; he's been whatever the Lakers have needed him to be.
And what they've needed him to be is a natural scorer, not a forced one. They've needed him to be someone who is hell-bent on putting points on the board, but also a threat to pass.
Following a near loss to the Detroit Pistons in which Bryant scored just 18 points and dished out five assists, he has abandoned his attempt to assume the part of an exclusive playmaker. He's now doing a little bit of everything.
Over the last 14 games, Kobe has scored fewer than 20 points just twice, but he's also dished out fewer than five assists just five times. Los Angeles' record during this stretch is 9-5.
Implementing a more balanced individual attack on behalf of Bryant has allowed the Lakers to withstand various defensive sets.
Heading into their February 22 bout against the Portland Trail Blazers, they were just 7-14 when Bryant tallied 30 or more points. Kobe has totaled 30 or more in six of the last seven games, and the Lakers are 5-1 in those six.
It's not so much that he's primarily focused on scoring, but that "primary" hasn't meant "only."
Kobe's still a scorer, but that title is no longer mutually exclusive with him creating opportunities for his teammates.
Dwight Howard's Health
Gone are the days when Howard complains about a lack of offensive opportunities. He's prepared to do what is necessary to win, whether that entails scoring or not.
Howard has played in 17 of Los Angeles' last 20 games, and his performances have varied to say the least.
The Lakers—Kobe included—have made a conscious effort to run the ball through the post when Howard's on the floor, but it hasn't always generated more offense for the big man. He's scored 15 or more points in nine out of the last 17 games, yet has posted fewer than 10 in five of the other eight.
Scoring 15 or more half the time is definitely not what Howard had in mind when the season began. On a team with so much offensive talent, though, he's come to accept that winning takes precedence over individual scoring.
Drawing such a conclusion has left Howard locked in on the defensive end, where he is invaluable.
He's grabbed at least 10 rebounds in 13 of his last 17 games and has tallied at least one steal and one block in all but four games.
His conditioning, though still a work in progress, also continues to improve (via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times):
Dwight Howard ran sprints after practice Wednesday to improve his conditioning and said he had also cut back on candy and undergone acupuncture treatments.
“I’m in good shape for a basketball player,” the Lakers center said, “but I’m not in Superman shape. I want to get in Superman shape.”
How far away is he, given that it's been 10 months since he underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back?
“It’s awhile,” he said, “but I’m going to give it everything I can.”
Now, while he may not be in "Superman shape," he's getting there. Dwight has logged at least 30 minutes in each of his last 12 games, and 35 or more in eight of those.
And his performance has been infectious (save for against the Thunder and Hornets, have you seen some of Los Angeles' rotations lately?), even when he's not on the floor.
Los Angeles still ranks 20th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, but it has allowed fewer than 100 points in 11 of the last 20 games. Just to put that in perspective, the Lakers held opponents to fewer than 100 points just 18 times in their first 42 games.
It's no coincidence that the team's increased devotion to defense and better results have coincided with Howard going "all in."
Nor is it a coincidence that the Lakers suddenly find themselves within grasp of what was once considered an elusive playoff berth either.
Offense and Defense: Before and After
Fresh off their anything but spontaneous combustion against the Grizzlies, the Lakers were reeling. Not just struggling, but destined to fail.
Then 17-25, the Lakers ranked 26th in total points allowed through the first 42 games of the season. At the time, they also ranked sixth in total points scored. Eight games under .500, that meant very little.
But now, the narrative has shifted.
For some, that feats mean little. Minor adjustments usually aren't indicative of a team on the verge of salvaging what was supposed to be a lost season.
For the Lakers, though, those marginal improvements stand to be the difference between a playoff berth and a shortened season.
There are still plenty of qualms to be had in Hollywood.
Los Angeles' defense isn't especially effective at preventing transition offense, and the ability to protect the rim and cut off dribble penetration isn't where it should be outside of Howard. Lessons are to be learned in losses against the Clippers, Thunder and Heat, and even a near-loss to the Hornets.
But that's the point. That the Lakers can actually take away something from their defeats is progress in and of itself. They spent the first half of the season unable to concretely pinpoint their issues. Again, it was chaos.
Now, even in losses, there is still hope.
Los Angeles has started to win—to play above .500 basketball. The Lakers have started to look like a contingent that doesn't just believe they will turn their season around, but has turned their season around.
And they no longer appear just playoff-worthy. No, they appear postseason-bound.
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