Uncontested Shots: Are The Lakers Just Now Rounding Into Form?

Andrew Ungvari@DrewUngaSenior Writer IMarch 26, 2010

SAN ANTONIO - MARCH 24: Forward Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles the ball past Tim Duncan #21 and Roger Mason, Jr. #8 of the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on March 24, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers' victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night was one of only a handful of games this season Lakers fans could really savor and feel good about.

The win was one of those games that the Lakers needed to remind themselves as well as their fans of how good they can be when they commit to playing team defense, knock down their open three-pointers, and get contributions from their bench.

You'd think that a team with 53 wins would at least provide it's fans with 20-25 wins that would allow them to puff out their chests and brag about this team's chances of defending it's title but that hasn't really happened.

At least not yet.

How many really impressive wins could you list off the top of your head? I can think of the Dallas game in early January, the win in Boston, the win a few weeks back in Phoenix, and the three wins in a row against Portland, San Antonio, and Utah without Kobe before the All-Star Break.

That's seven total victories including Wednesday night's game in San Antonio. And even that game looked bleak at times in the first half when George Hill was having his way with them.

Don't get me wrong. They've had wins over impressive teams but many of those weren't impressive victories. The wins earlier in the season against Atlanta and Orlando both got way too close for comfort after big leads nearly evaporated.

Much has been made about Kobe Bryant's heroics this season but in five of the seven games in which Bryant hit a game-winning shot Lakers fans walked away more relieved than overjoyed.

Think about it.

There was the home game against Miami in which the Lakers nearly blew a nine-point lead with 6:24 left in the game.

There was the overtime win against Milwaukee in which the Lakers should have easily handled a Bucks team that wasn't playing nearly as good as they are now.

There was the New Year's Day home game against Sacramento in which the Lakers trailed by 20 points to a team that's currently 24-48.

There was the win over Memphis in which the Lakers led by 14, then went down by as many as 11, before Kobe pulled out the W.

Most recently was the win over Toronto in which the Lakers trailed by eight points at intermission to a team that's 11 games under .500 on the road this year.

It's tough to get a read on this Lakers team in the context of a defending champion.

For example, when you consider the teams that have repeated as champions since 1988 it's hard to tell if this team can be mentioned in the same breath with any of them.

If I were to give anyone who has watched the NBA during the last 22 seasons a list of all of the repeat champions during that time frame and asked them if this Lakers team could be mentioned in the same breath with any of them I doubt anyone would say yes.

Sure they're a great team on paper but there hasn't been enough consistency since they won their season-best eleventh game in a row back on Dec. 2.

The lone exception might be the 1994-95 champion Houston Rockets who finished 47-35 and sixth in the Western Conference before winning the second of their back-to-back championships.

For the most part, this Lakers season has been all about waiting for the team to flip the switch and show that they are as hungry to win a championship as the rest of the elite teams in the league—namely the Cleveland Cavaliers.

There is a glaring similarity between last year's Cavs and this year's Lakers.

Where Things Stand

Last season the Cavs finished 67-15 and had the best regular season record in the NBA but were only 3-6 against the other three teams that made up the league's top four records. The Cavs lost two of their three regular season meetings against the Orlando Magic so it shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that the Magic beat them in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

This season the Lakers are on pace to win 61 games (five fewer than they won last season) but they are a combined 3-5 against Cleveland, Orlando, and Dallas and are only a combined 8-9 against the other seven teams that make up the league's eight best records.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that the Lakers are currently riding a seven-game winning streak and have a chance to really quiet their critics with an impressive showing over their next seven games.

That's because the next seven games should present plenty of challenges for the Purple and Gold. Their schedule is as follows:

Friday @ Oklahoma City

Saturday @ Houston

Monday @ New Orleans

Wednesday @ Atlanta

April 2 vs. Utah

April 4 vs. San Antonio

April 8 @ Denver

Normally I wouldn't even daydream about the possibility of the Lakers winning all seven games based on how they've played this season. But there was something about Wednesday night's win in San Antonio that made it seem like the kind of win that could propel this team going forward.

Five of the seven games are against teams headed to the playoffs and the two teams currently out of the playoffs, Houston and New Orleans, are both road games.

The Lakers have all but assured themselves of the top spot in the Western Conference Playoffs.

I'm sure they've realized that with so few games left to play their chances of catching the Cavs for the top overall seed is out of the realm of possibility. Even if the Lakers were to win their last 11 games and head into the playoffs with an 18-game winning streak they would still need the Cavs to finish 6-4 over their final 10 games in order to overtake them.

That means the Lakers have their eyes on locking up the second-best record in the NBA and right now they're only competition will come from the Orlando Magic.

As of Thursday, the Magic were 3 1/2 games behind the Lakers in the race for who would have home court advantage should the two teams square off in a rematch of last season's NBA Finals.

It's imperative that the Lakers take care of these next seven games and finish no worse than 5-2 to ensure that the last four regular season games are meaningless. In other words, make sure they've at least locked up the second-seed.

Considering how many minutes the Lakers starters have amassed due to the inconsistency of their bench it would be a huge advantage for them to use their last four games to give meaningful minutes to guys like Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton, who are both expected to be back from their respective injuries by then, as well as guys like DJ Mbenga, Sasha Vujacic, and even Adam Morrison as they head into the postseason.

Bone Picking Time

Every once in a while you read an article that either seems like it was written under the assumption of a particular outcome and other times you read an article that seems completely outdated.

This week we were lucky to get one of each.

The first was Bill Plaschke's article in The Los Angeles Times about Ron Artest and how he's yet to fit in as well as the man he replaced, Trevor Ariza.

If you want to make the case that the Lakers would have been better off keeping Ariza I'll let you make your argument. In fact, I can make the argument for both sides.

If you want to say that the Lakers should have kept Ariza strictly because he's five and a half years younger then you've got a good point. It's not crazy to assume that Artest's best days are behind him while Ariza's best days lay ahead.

But why Plaschke would choose to write his first basketball-related article since Feb. 3 and only his second since July of last year at a time when Artest is playing his most important basketball for the Lakers is beyond me.

Keep in mind that Plaschke was in Vancouver during the month of February writing articles about Evan Lysacek and Lindsey Jacobellis so how much basketball was he actually watching?

Plascke actually wrote, "Ron Artest is barely raising an eyebrow."

Really, Bill? Have you seen what Artest has done since that day you were covering the gold medal hockey game between the United States and Canada?

Since that game on Feb. 28, Artest has four games in which he has at least five steals, including Wednesday night's game against San Antonio in which he also scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Ariza recorded five steals in a game just once all of last season—including the playoffs.

And yet Plaschke still had the audacity to write "The Lakers are still waiting for Artest to shut down more opponents like he shut down Denver's Carmelo Anthony at the end of last month, and make the sort of big defensive plays Ariza made regularly."

When did Ariza ever shut down Carmelo Anthony? In fact, it was the Lakers series against Anthony's Nuggets last May that probably prompted the Lakers to sign Artest and let Ariza go.

Anybody who watched that series would know that both Kobe Bryant and Luke Walton had to guard Anthony because of the way he destroyed Ariza.

Anthony's point totals in each of the series' six games: 39, 34, 21, 15, 31, and 25.

Artest told Plaschke that Ariza is a better player because he owns a ring.

What Plascke didn't understand was that that's precisely what makes Artest so valuable to this team. It's the same reason why P.J. Brown was so important to the 2008 championship.

Artest's job during the playoffs will be to remind the Lakers of the hunger that burned in them a year ago. He's the one who sat out the team's ring ceremony in October. He's the one who took a pay cut to play for a team that could win a championship.

In looking at Plaschke's archive I stumbled across the article he wrote last July. No surprise that the article was about the Lakers making a mistake in signing Artest over Ariza.

His piece this week wasn't so much news at it was an opportunity to use the Lakers record this season to say "I told you so," when in fact he only came off looking like he doesn't really follow the team.

No surprise that another critic of the move, ESPN's Sports Guy, Bill Simmons, tweeted Plaschke's article with an "I mean, I hate to say I told you so, but..." of his own.

In January of 2009, the Lakers had a game in San Antonio in which they had a chance to win. Kobe Bryant had the ball and was double-teamed so he passed it off to Ariza who got called for traveling.

This time the outcome was different and Artest was one of the main reasons why.

The other article was John Hollinger's piece on ESPN.com (Insider required) regarding the Western Conference Playoffs being wide open this season and the Lakers no longer seeming to be a lock.

There's no possible way that Hollinger would have written the article if he thought the Lakers would even have a chance of winning Wednesday's game.

But instead of scrapping the article he added a couple sentences here and there to make it appear fresh and sent it to his editor anyways.

And to think that I actually paid for the privilege of reading it!

In fact, Hollinger actually touts that the Spurs have won 10 of their last 14 games to present his case for them potentially challenging the Lakers in a playoff series but there's nary a mention of the Lakers' seven-game winning streak. Instead he makes excuses for why the Spurs lost.

Are we really supposed to believe that the Spurs winning 10 of their last 14 presents a better case for them beating the Lakers than the Lakers' current streak and recent victory make for them beating the Spurs?

He mentions that the Lakers schedule of late has been soft but has no problem making the case for Phoenix beating the Lakers even though the second win of the Lakers' current winning streak came against the Suns in Phoenix?

Finally, Hollinger makes the case for the Jazz passing both the Nuggets and Mavericks to win the second-seed in the conference.

He points out that the Jazz have won 28 of their last 36 games despite all of their injuries but fails to mention how one of those eight losses came in Utah against the Lakers who were playing without Kobe Bryant.

I would have no problem if Hollinger wanted to make the case for either the Mavericks or the Nuggets. The Mavs are probably the deepest team in the west right now and the Nuggets have absolutely no fear of the Lakers.

But the Spurs, Suns, and the Jazz?

Since the 2007-08 season the Jazz have gone 104-23 at home, including the playoffs. Of those 23 losses at home (arguably the toughest arena for opponents in the entire league) five have come against the Lakers.

During that same stretch the Jazz have gone 0-11 against the Lakers in Los Angeles.

So unless the Jazz manage to pass the Lakers in the standings I have a hard time believing they can beat them. And even if they had homecourt advantage I still wouldn't pick the Jazz.

In the cases of Hollinger and Simmons nobody should be surprised. Both have made quite a living voicing their displeasure with the Lakers' success—Simmons does it with what he says while Hollinger does it with what he doesn't say.

I don't care if anybody wants to make the case that the Lakers can be beat this season. Frankly, I still wouldn't bet on the Lakers winning the title just yet.

But at least give me something I can chew on as to why.

Andrew Ungvari is a Senior Writer and Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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