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Are feisty, young Lakers for real?

Upcoming 18-game stretch may determine fate of coach Luke Walton's team

Scott Howard-Cooper

OAKLAND – Wednesday night, Oracle Arena, about 90 minutes before tipoff against the Warriors, and coach Luke Walton is standing outside the Lakers’ locker room.

“The next several weeks the schedule gets especially difficult for you guys with a lot of road games,” a reporter says during Walton’s pregame meeting with the media.

“More difficult than it is right now?” Walton counters.

Fair point. Golden State is 12-2 as they speak and, the Lakers know, probably thinking about the previous meeting, a 117-97 L.A. win at Staples Center on Nov. 4. That, then, makes Golden State 12-2 and particularly motivated, a bad combination for an opponent. That supposition then quickly becomes fact when the game begins those 90 minutes later and the Warriors drop a 41 on Walton, their assistant coach the last two seasons, in the first quarter alone.

So maybe the upcoming calendar isn’t worse. But all the road games. The schedule gets especially difficult because of the road games.

“Oh,” Walton said. “I’ll take the road over the Warriors.”

It’s one big ball of possible trouble in that case. What started Wednesday as Golden State cruised 149-106 and continues Friday night in the rematch in Los Angeles (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) is all part of the bigger picture of the Lakers’ reality check. This is their proving ground, holiday style.

Eighteen games.

Thirteen on the road.

Five back-to-backs.

A seven-game trip.

A four-game trip.

Even the one-gamer on the road during the stretch feels like piling on: at Houston, an unusual itinerary as a long way to go to turn around and head right back to L.A.

Just before Thanksgiving until just before Christmas is going to tell a lot about whether the Lakers at 8-8 are legit or merely riding an early wave of energy before gravity kicks in. If they are anywhere close to .500 late on the night of Dec. 23, after the 18-game obstacle course ends in Orlando, then they’ve really got something in 2016-17. If they leave Central Florida below . 500 and buried deep in the Western Conference again, the climb will suddenly feel a lot steeper in late December than it did in the hopeful days of late November.

“Yes and no,” said Jose Calderon, the new starting point guard with D’Angelo Russell expected to miss at least two weeks because of a sore left knee. “At the end of the day, you can play all the road games now. That means they’re coming back at your house later on in the season. I think it’s how you go through it. I’m not saying you’ve got to win every game. But it’s the way we compete. If we keep playing the way we’re playing, you can lose or win but if you are in every game like we’ve been lately I think that’s an improvement and after we’ll see what happens in a few weeks from now. I think we should go just game by game, but I think that we are in the right direction.”

That’s an automatic — a 17-win team that sported a .207 winning percentage last season is already at eight (they were 2-14 through the same 16 games in 2015-16). Four of the eight – wins against the Rockets, Hawks, Warriors and Thunder – are against opponents that today are .500 or better. The good news is, it’s not even December. The Lakers could have smashed through 17 wins by the All-Star break. With a young core of Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Russell, plus Walton as a coach with great promise, L.A. is the definition of right direction.

The bad news is, it’s not even December. The 8-8 could by All-Star break be a memory of when things were good, way back in the first month of the season. Before Russell missed a large bloc of the schedule … before Randle’s hip pointer meant two starters missed the night in Oakland … before the schedule turned treacherous.

Welcome to the moment the schedule turned treacherous.

The Warriors twice in three days, just when they’re meshing after the summer of bold roster moves, followed by the 10-5 Hawks at Staples. Then a swing from New Orleans to Chicago to Toronto to Memphis, before returning to Los Angeles to face the Jazz. And then flying to Texas for a game. When the Lakers get back home it will be to play the Suns and Knicks, but as a rest stop before heading out for seven: Sacramento, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Charlotte, Miami and, on Dec. 23, Orlando.

Everyone is going to have a much better read on the Lakers by Christmas.

“Maybe for the general public,” Walton said. “We know about our team and we know what kind of guys we have. We know what kind of work they’re putting in. We know there’s going to be mistakes. There’s going to be nights that we don’t play well enough to win. There’s going to be nights we play well enough to win and just don’t get it done. But we know as a staff, and I think we’re starting to know as a team, who we are and what we can do when we’re all on the same page.”

They are now, by all indications, especially on offense while the Lakers of the other side of the ball are 29th in defensive rating and 30th in shooting defense. But now they’ve got 13 road games plus one more at home against the Warriors as part of a stretch of 18 games for a team suddenly loaded with optimism. Until Christmas, at least. By then everyone will know if L.A. has something more than just optimism.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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