The Los Angeles Lakers are getting serious just in time for the post-season.
Lakers look like the NBA's best once more
The Los Angeles Lakers are getting serious. They are getting into the post-season mode, getting that look about them - the one the rest of the NBA was hoping would not be seen this season.
The Lakers appeared to be an ageing, slipping team when they went into the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak, including a staggering loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers.
Since then they have been on an impressive roll that is making the rest of the league nervous, particularly the other teams in the Western Conference with them.
Since the break, the Lakers are 17-1 and have won nine straight.
They have caught the Chicago Bulls for the second-best record in the league, and are now just one-and-a-half games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the NBA.
"It's simply this: we've played very well and you can go out and have a stinker like we had in the first half [Friday, at Utah, where the Lakers won after trailing at half-time] and lose a ball game, and not have that energy in the second half to come back and win," Phil Jackson, the coach, said. "It's asking a lot of a team to continue at that pace and expect them to play at that pace.
"We want to do it and we have every urgency to do it. But the odds are against us. It's still a real tough thing to do."
Whether they pull it off almost seems beside the point. What is important is that the Lakers are now playing their best basketball with the play-offs scheduled to begin in two weeks.
They are looking the role of the two-time defending champions. They are winning close games, winning against both the meek and the mighty.
Gregg Popovich, the Spurs coach, said a month ago that he thought the Lakers were the best team, and that was before San Antonio went on a six-game losing streak, and added: "They're put together the way they need to be put together. They've got the experience. They know what they're doing. Phil has to be patient with them and do what he does, and they'll be there come play-off time."
The team with the best record gets home-court advantage in all play-off series. Last year that proved useful when the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the finals in Los Angeles.
In the past six weeks, the Lakers have put the league on notice: they are serious about defending their title.
Players of the week
• Zach Randolph, Memphis. Averaged 23.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in three games, shooting 63.6 per cent from the field.
• LeBron James, Miami. Nearly averaged a triple-double, with 29.7 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds per game.
• Derrick Rose, Chicago. Averaged 29 points and eight assists. Even James said Rose is the leading MVP candidate.
Teams of the week
• Los Angeles Lakers. The defending champions have won nine in a row and 17 of 18. Their loss, though, was to the Heat.
• Denver. The re-tooled Nuggets continue to roll. They won both their games last week and are on a five-game winning streak.
• Memphis. Zach Randolph, below, and the Grizzlies won all three of their games last week to pull into a tie with New Orleans for the final playoff spot in the West.
Duds of the week
• Wesley Johnson, Minnesota: Averaged 2.7 points in three starts.
• Jason Kidd, Dallas. He looked his age (38) last week, averaging 4.6 points.
• San Antonio. The Spurs lost six consecutive games, the longest losing streak of the Tim Duncan era.
Games of the week
• Oklahoma City at Denver, tomorrow. This could be a preview of a first-round play-off game in the West. The Nuggets are surging, while the Thunder have lost two in a row.
• Boston at Chicago, Thursday. The Bulls always wanted a rivalry with the Celtics, but they may have caught them on a downward spiral. Best record in the East could be at stake.