Posted Mar 25 2010 11:03AM
SAN ANTONIO -- It was barely three weeks ago when the ceiling plaster began to crack in Los Angeles, when the ground beneath their feet threatened to open up and swallow the Lakers.
A misplaced weekend in Miami, Charlotte and Orlando produced the first three-game losing streak in two years and turned some faces as purple as the road jerseys.
Pau Gasol just happened to mention that it helps a little when Kobe Bryant spreads the ball around ... and you'd have thought he was Joe Biden ad-libbing into an open microphone.
Then Andrew Bynum took his annual spring break excursion onto the injured list ... and the warnings suggested that the royal kingdom might be crumbling.
"That's part of being front and center, being on the cover page, being the most visible team in the league," said Derek Fisher. "It comes with the territory."
Being a Laker is like being a supermodel who wakes up every morning fearful of finding a pimple on her chin. As they say at the family reunion, everything is relative.
After beating the Spurs on Wednesday night, the Lakers have a 6 1/2-game lead over Denver for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, trail Cleveland by just three games for the best record in the NBA and yet somehow are perceived to be less than their record suggests.
Are there really some chinks in the armor of the defending champs, or is this merely the usual Hollywood drama?
"I think mostly it's the second part," said Gasol. "We have so many media around us, following us. Obviously, when there's something that is unusual they make a big deal out of it and they try to start looking for reasons just to start things up.
"But we understand what goes on with our team. We understand what it takes to be successful, to win ballgames. We're gonna go through slumps and bumps here and there. But I think right now we're at a good place."
That's not to say there aren't rough spots that need smoothing out before the playoffs. But remember, even commissioner David Stern once said, only half-joking, that the NBA's dream matchup in the Finals would be Lakers vs. Lakers. Everything with this team must be filtered through that high-profile prism of expectations.
The Lakers cast their long shadow by zooming out to a 23-4 record before taking a Christmas Day beatdown on their home floor by LeBron James and the Cavs. From there, they were merely good rather than extraordinary.
When Ron Artest joined the team over the summer, the expectation was that he would be the defensive hammer. But Artest spent the first half of the season mostly banging himself on the thumb before blossoming over the past few weeks as a force who changes games simply by ripping the ball out of opponents' hands. That's what he did all through the second half against the Spurs.
The Lakers have kept their distance from the pack in the West while dealing with an injury-plagued season by Bryant (fractured finger, ankle) and bench production that has often been meager. Bynum (strained Achilles tendon) going down for the third year in a row only ratcheted up the concern.
"The biggest disappointment is Andrew getting injured," coach Phil Jackson said. "That is a big disappointment. The bench not playing at top-performance level, that's a top concern for me, more than anything else. But other than that, Artest is playing the way that we had envisioned him playing defensively, taking balls away from guys, getting strips, changing the game around. He's starting to develop into the player that we had hoped he would be.
"There are a lot of things we're happy about. Pau's game and what he's doing right now. Kobe's come through an injured season and is still playing at a pretty high level when he wants to put it on. The biggest concern is probably Fish and the amount of minutes we have to play him here down the stretch."
That they had already won six in a row coming into San Antonio for the start of a five-game road trip was lost in the miasma of lackluster wins over the dregs from Golden State, Sacramento, Minnesota and Washington.
"We've got the trophy," said Bryant. "Until somebody takes it from us, we're still top dog.
"We're not gonna be where we were last year. We're a different team. The simple fact that we added Ron makes us a different team, gives us a different identity. The way that we went about winning it last year is not gonna be the same way we go about it this year. We've accepted that. We understand that we'll have a different DNA."
It's all part of trying to repeat, the constant comparisons to what went before, the target on your back, the interminable slog through the marathon 82-game schedule until the challenge of the playoffs returns.
"I think this point of the season is when it really gets exciting and guys start locking in," Bryant said. "You can smell the playoffs. It's right around the corner. I think the hard part is a month ago. We went through a little malaise, three-quarters through the season and kind of dragging a little bit. I think right now it's the time of year that's exciting.
"We don't worry about the drama. I think that's more entertainment, something for people to talk about, especially in L.A. People really get up in arms about a two-game, three-game losing streak. We know who we can be."
Maybe just as important, the Lakers know who they are.
"I was telling some guys the other day, it's easy to talk about what we haven't done and you forget what we have done," said Fisher. "So far, in the last year plus, we've won 118 games and lost 35. That's not too bad. It sure isn't anything to worry about."
Unless, of course, you're the Lakers and have to live up to being the Lakers.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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