Posted Jan 14 2010 10:41AM
An unfortunate promotion before the start of the fourth quarter the other night at San Antonio's AT&T Center ended with the winner of a jalapeno-eating contest paying the price for his bravado by getting sick in an all-too-close-up view that was shown live on the giant video screen hanging over the middle of the court.
The Los Angeles Lakers are not experiencing quite the intestinal upheaval these days, though a bit of queasiness is probably the symptom of the moment.
In the space of barely three weeks the Lakers have regurgitated much of the air of superiority that once separated them from the rest of the Western Conference.
At about the time they took the floor for their Christmas Day meeting with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kobe Bryant and the defending champion Lakers were stalking not just a place as the team to beat in the 2009-10 season but also, perhaps, chasing a bit of history.
With one set of gaudy rings already in hand, there had been some talk since training camp about the Lakers with their newest defensive stopper in Ron Artest drawing a bead on the all-time NBA regular season record of 72-10 set by Michael Jordan's 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
Now, three weeks later, 72-10 is still within mathematical reach. After Wednesday night's win in Dallas, all the Lakers have to do is finish 43-0 between now to eclipse the Bulls, 42-1 to tie.
Since their 18-3 start on Dec. 11, the Lakers have gone 12-6, which had included a four-game road losing streak, their longest in three years.
There are, of course, explanations, not the least of which is a schedule that turned colder than a divorce lawyer after allowing the Lakers to play 17 of their first 21 games in the expensively cozy confines of the Staples Center.
Then there are the harsh realities of the relentless toll that the grueling regular season takes on even a collection of the best physical specimens, wearing them down like a scalpel on a grinding wheel.
"It's just a period in the season right now where it's a tough stretch," Bryant said. "You have those every once in a while. Unless you're the Bulls and go 72-10, you're gonna have those stretches. But the majority of teams have stretches like this."
What stretches like these emphasize is just how extraordinary the achievement by the Bulls was back in their stampeding, magical season, because it all can come undone in one uncomfortable misstep. Back then, when Chicago lost its third game on Dec. 26, then Bulls then ran off an 18-game winning streak before loss No. 4. The Lakers are just trying to get themselves walking without a collective limp.
Bryant had already been dealing with painful avulsion fracture in the index finger of his right hand when he rose up and stuck a turnaround bucket over San Antonio's George Hill in the first quarter on Tuesday night. By the time the ball hit the bottom of the net and Bryant's feet hit the floor, his back was in spasms and he finished the night in the locker room, never setting a toe onto the court in the fourth quarter.
Trainer Gary Vitti's treatment room was more crowded than the last helicopter out of Saigon by the time the Lakers hobbled away from their back-to-back visit to Texas. Artest, who had previously missed five games with a concussion after tripping at his home on Christmas night, sprained his right index finger in San Antonio. Sasha Vujacic felt the grab of a strained right hamstring. While Luke Walton made slightly-sooner-than-expected return from two months on the shelf with a pinched nerve in his back, that was because Adam Morrison had to be scratched from the active list because he was suffering from flu-like symptoms.
If you're the Lakers, you could shrug and start looking up to see if a piano is about to fall on your head in a spate of injury-bitten misfortune.
"No," said a defiant Bryant. "It's part of the business and I won't even allow my guys to think about that or have that attitude. You pull your boots up and get ready to play. I don't give a damn who's hurt."
Bryant got himself ready to play against the Mavs with the help of his massage therapist and, despite sitting out the second quarter when the spasms flared up again he was on the court for the finish and nailed the 19-footer with 28.9 seconds left that sealed the win. It was the third straight game that Bryant scored fewer than 20 points, the first time that happened since April of 2005.
It's not all bad news on the health front for the Lakers as Pau Gasol is targeting Friday night against the Clippers for his return after a six-game absence with a strained left hamstring. And in the aftermath of the Texas two-step, all of what's ailed the Lakers hasn't been physical.
With Bryant out of the game in San Antonio, Lamar Odom hardly filled the breach, taking just six shots.
"We've got to get Lamar playing basketball in an offensive way where he's taking some responsibility to play and step up when Kobe's out of the game," said coach Phil Jackson.
Then there have been the often singularly wild efforts by Artest at both ends of the floor.
What could Artest be doing better right now?
"Almost everything," Jackson said.
Odom (18 points, 14 rebounds) and Artest (16 and 11) both stepped up against the Mavs after a conversation with Bryant earlier in the day.
"What the hell are you guys waiting for? You've been sitting around, waiting for me to bail your asses out all the time," Bryant said. "Get going. It makes us a better team. Don't worry about me. You've got to be aggressive."
So as a flirtation with history fades into the reality of the moment, there is no time for pity or panic.
"You just focus on execution, that's all," Bryant said. "A lot of teams are over-dramatic about it and want to have team meetings and team bondings and all this other stuff. You focus on execution -- that's what it is...Get back to basics. That's what you have to do...Nothing more, nothing less. We keep on moving forward."
Never bringing anything from the past, uh, back up.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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