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Shaun Powell

The Lakers are off to a great start, but January will tell us just how good they are.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Lakers cruising again, but first real test lies ahead

Posted Dec 15 2009 11:18AM

Other than the country's insatiable thirst for sensationalism and celebrity, there is one more reason Lamar Odom and his Kardashian are getting lots of publicity: The team he plays for is boring.

Boring, as in, there's nothing new this season. The Lakers, defending champs, are cruising. They've got the best record in the West. Their championship aspirations are still breathing hard. Their glamour, judging by their large national following, is still blinding.

Well, there is a bit of the unexpected. Ron Artest hasn't done anything truly nutty. That's a twist. Otherwise, it's business as usual. And that's grim news for the rest of the conference, if not the league.

Kobe Bryant's bum finger aside, the Lakers haven't faced any adversity. Once he broke out from his shooting funk to start the season and Artest adjusted to life as a Laker, they started rolling. Odom is still flirting with triple doubles some nights while keeping his ego in check for the sake of the cause. Derek Fisher is shooting below 40 percent, but he usually doesn't wake up until June and the Lakers are fine with that. Pau Gasol is getting double-doubles.

Oh, and yes, it's true: Not only is Andrew Bynum injury free, he may be an All-Star.

You could make a case that most contenders in the West are either the same as before or weaker. Meanwhile, the Lakers are actually stronger. The team that won 65 games and erased Orlando in the NBA Finals has returned more complete and dangerous than before. Is this even allowed?

OK, here comes the disclaimer: The Lakers have had it easy. Schedule-wise, at least. Of their first 21 games, 17 have taken place in the comfy confines of the Staples Center. Well, it's about to toughen up. The next two months will be filled with road swings and a slew of back-to-back crunchers that culminates with an eight-game trip in late January. It will give us a much truer picture about the Lakers and their ability to stay fresh and healthy and on top in the West.

"You just have to play through it," said coach Phil Jackson.

It all begins with Kobe, of course, and his commitment to fitness and keeping his game sharp. Kobe is on the other side of 30, but like Michael Jordan before him, he takes tremendous pride in never needing to reach for oxygen. Besides, any falloff from Kobe is mostly voluntary. He's not scoring as many points because he doesn't have to. He has much more faith in his teammates, unlike four and five years ago, when Kobe considered himself the first and second option. Well, check that: the only option. Kobe would rather shoot over triple-teams than pass to Kwame Brown for an open look. Kobe liked his chances in that situation.

Gasol played a generous slate of basketball over the summer and led Spain to the EuroBasket title, claiming the tournament MVP. Then he strained his hamstring in the preseason which cost him the first 11 games. Neither the summer schedule nor the hamstring managed to linger with Gasol. If nothing else, Gasol looks younger. He just had back-to-back 20-rebound games and has just about worked his way back into form as the No. 2 option, still getting the first glance from Kobe when the double-team comes his way.

After a summer of haggling, the Lakers re-signed Odom, who has done his part to make sure Trevor Ariza wouldn't be missed too badly. Nobody has caught Artest reaching for a bottle wrapped inside a brown paper bag at halftime, which means his claims of drinking during games while with the Bulls were either fiction or a thing of the distant past.

"This is a good place for me," said Artest, and the Lakers would agree.

The real blessing has been Bynum, no longer limping along or being praised for what he might give the Lakers some day in the future. That day, the Lakers hope, has arrived. Bynum posted big numbers while Gasol was out, and still gets around 10 touches a game and does the little things now that Gasol's in the lineup. The twin big men are quite the combination and should only improve as a tandem, since they've played less than a full season together because of injuries.

The last day of January will put the road-weary Lakers in Boston, and if these conference leaders stay true to their current pace, that game will be a midseason treat. Neither team was at full strength last summer in the postseason, but the Lakers were able to overcome the loss of Bynum, quite understandably, far better than the Celtics could cope without Kevin Garnett. Both players are back and both teams are better off for it.

A June summit starring the Lakers and Celtics? Odom and Khloe Kardashian couldn't compete with those ratings.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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