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Art Garcia

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Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Lakers can't afford to hit cruise control as season ends

By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Mar 12 2009 5:18PM

HOUSTON -- The Lakers are lapping the field in the Western Conference. Even with a three-game road losing streak -- gasp -- going into Wednesday, the descendants of Showtime are on the verge of wrapping up the No. 1 seed.

With 18 games left in the regular season, the magic number for clinching homecourt throughout the West playoffs is down to 12. The only real intrigue left is whether Kobe and his Ko-horts can finish ahead of the best out East.

But it's not as if the Lakers (51-13) don't peek into the rearview mirror time and again to scan the rest of the conference. While second-place San Antonio trails the Lakers by an insurmountable 7.5 games, No. 8 Dallas is considerably closer than that to the Spurs.

Traffic? Try seven-car pileup.

"We're all fans on the game, so we pay attention to what goes on night to night," Lakers sage Derek Fisher said, "but not with thoughts of preference or matchup or we hope this team gets this spot or that spot."

Top seeds don't maneuver. They don't need or have to. All those who criticized the Mavericks for not knocking Golden State out of the playoffs when they had a chance late in the season three years ago should remember that Dallas won 67 games. An eighth seed, however dangerous or motivated its coach may be, shouldn't beat No. 1 seed.

The Lakers do have to make sure their lead doesn't become an excuse to coast. The recent road skid, snapped with Wednesday night's 102-96 (Highlights | Box Score | Recap) slugfest victory over the Rockets, was a cold bucket of water on their heads.

"We'll be in the top spot, I'm not concerned about that, but we just want to be playing better basketball as the season winds down," Fisher said. "That's really more of our main concern. We're playing all right.

"The standings will take care of themselves. I guess we don't really see it as a cushion or an advantage, more so an opportunity to keep it that way, as opposed to letting anything change."

The changes will occur for those chasing the Lakers, and those teams are lining up to get their licks in. The Lakers' current three-game trek began at Portland (loss) and ends Thursday night at San Antonio.

Even without Tracy McGrady, the Rockets still have their eyes set on the Southwest Division title and/or a possible top-four seed. Houston center Yao Ming said the Lakers offer a chance to measure where his team stands.

"If you want to be big, the Lakers are on top right now," said Yao, the league's tallest player at 7-foot-6. "The biggest."

The Lakers aren't without their measuring sticks. The Spurs are a perennial playoff nemesis, and the squad many people believe is best equipped to Beat L.A. Fisher emphasized the need to take something out of their upcoming national TV showdown in South Texas.

"That's how we felt going into the game at Portland a couple nights ago," Fisher said. "It's an opportunity to play against a good team on their home floor and figure some things out about ourselves."

The Rockets thought they had Kobe figured out, at least in the first half. Bryant had only six points at intermission on as many shots. Nothing like a challenge, especially with Lamar Odom (suspended) and Andrew Bynum (still hurt) out.

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His personal run early in the third quarter was merely an appetizer to a fourth that was jaw dropping for several reasons. Kobe's 18 points in the final period, following 13 in the third, completed a 37-point evening.

A personal duel with Ron Artest, one that included verbal jabs, a good bit of jostling and double technicals, revved Bryant up. Not smart. Ron-Ron told Kobe at one point, "I've shut you down before." Perhaps, just not this time.

"It wasn't much of a battle," Bryant countered. "I kicked his [butt]. We've had some battles in the past, but he never talked trash. But he didn't stop all game until the end."

Kobe's dominance mirrors the Lakers' lead in the West, suggesting the lack of true threats. That's hardly the case. The Jazz and Hornets look like the teams everyone expected them to be five months ago. Of course, the Spurs are there. Houston is out to prove their recent run is no fluke.

"We never looked at the standings as an indication of our ability to just breeze through to the Finals again," Fisher said. "But we have looked at the regular season standings as an opportunity to set a standard for ourselves and a certain level of accountability, and whatever comes with it, as far as homecourt, those are bonuses.

"If you solidify an ability to play at a high level -- win 60-plus games in a season -- that just says a lot about how serious you take every game and you can also take that approach into the playoffs."

Finishing on top is just the start.

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