With just nine games left in what could turn out to be the most disappointing season by any team in NBA history, the Los Angeles Lakers are desperately clinging to life. A mere half-game up on the Utah Jazz for the final Western Conference playoff spot, the injury-riddled Lakers are in full-on survival mode now.
L.A. has lost four of its last five games, and according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, even its most seemingly invincible hero is a little worse for wear.
Oh, and at the risk of piling on, Metta World Peace is also out for the season.
So, with the team's performance in a tailspin and the injuries mounting, how are the Lakers going to survive the toughest test they've faced all season?
They Can't Do It Alone on Defense...
Much of the criticism surrounding the Lakers this season has focused on their perplexing inability to come together as a team. Despite a club full of veterans and two of the league's most unselfish stars in Nash and Pau Gasol, L.A. hasn't established anything resembling consistent chemistry.
On defense, that lack of unity has led to poor rotations and no communication or effort in transition.
Dwight Howard hasn't been right about much this season, but he was spot-on in his postgame analysis on Thursday.
L.A. lacks a single above-average individual defender on the perimeter, which means its help-and-recover rotations have to be precise. When it isn't—and for much of the year, it hasn't been—the Lakers defense hemorrhages points.
To stop the bleeding, Howard and his teammates have got to view their defensive efforts as collective, and not individual.
...Or on Offense
On offense, the same thing is true.
Too often this year, the Lakers have been plagued by inconsistency on the offensive end. Part of that is attributable to coach Mike D'Antoni's apparent inability to conform his strategy to the personnel on the roster.
He's used Gasol as everything from a starting center to a backup stretch-4.
Compounding the problem has been Bryant's sporadic reversion to his infamous hero-ball style. Interspersing his selfish stretches with others in which he has seemed hellbent on piling up assists has made for an unpredictable, often clunky offensive attack.
Gasol has been jerked around plenty this year, but his ideas on what to do to fix L.A.'s offense before it's too late are good ones:
The truth is that D'Antoni's free-wheeling style gives Bryant too much freedom. When he wants the ball, he goes and gets it. And once he's got it, the rest of the Lakers are at the mercy of whatever point he's trying to prove that day.
Whatever L.A. can do to make Bryant a part of the offensive machine, rather than its sole operator, is probably a good thing.
Manage the Pain
It might be tempting to look ahead at the Lakers' remaining schedule and try to single out games in which they could rest their ailing stars. Perhaps L.A. could rest both Bryant and Nash for the March 30 contest against the Sacramento Kings. Or maybe the tilt on April 9 against the New Orleans Hornets could provide a break.
But time is short, and frankly, it's too late to take any games off.
Part of the reason for that harsh reality is that the Lakers haven't proved themselves to be good enough to pencil in any sure wins on the schedule. The Kings and Hornets may both be lottery teams, but the Lakers are a half-game away from sharing that distinction.
We're not talking about the San Antonio Spurs here. The Lakers are a borderline playoff team that absolutely have to be at full strength to have an advantage over even the most seemingly harmless foes.
In addition, the Lakers need their stars in the lineup because the bench simply isn't good enough to compete. If Nash can hobble around for 30 minutes, that's a damn sight better than whatever a fully healthy Chris Duhon would provide.
D'Antoni has shortened his rotation to eight players of late for good reason: the reserves comprising the deeper reaches of the Lakers bench can't play.
Bryant says he'll be fine, and Nash's injury may not be a major one. Those are two pieces of good news for the Lakers because no amount of lineup tinkering or strategic rest is going to help them now.
They're well past the point of managing minutes, or even the schedule. Instead, L.A.'s stars are just going to have to manage the pain.
So, Here We Are
It turns out that the Lakers' toughest test isn't really a single test at all. Instead, the entire catalog of issues that have plagued the team all season have suddenly come together at once, collectively threatening to snuff out L.A.'s flickering playoff hopes.
Poor chemistry, questionable coaching moves, a lack of depth, age and injuries are all in play now.
If the reeling Lakers can't put aside selfish play, come together and fight through the accumulated aches and pains of a hellish season, they'll ironically share in one thing when the dust settles: the epic disappointment of a wasted year.