With only 12 games remaining, the Los Angeles Lakers have definitely hit the home stretch of their regular season schedule. Traditionally, the Lakers under Phil Jackson (those with championship aspirations at least) have closed the season with a flourish. For example, the championship teams of Shaq and Kobe ended the season with records of 14-3 (99-00), 8-0 (00-01), and 8-3 (01-02). Last year's squad finished 7-1.
But the record is just a by-product. What really goes on at the end of each regular season is a conscientious increase in effort level on the part of the team. The Lakers may not care about the regular season en masse, but they do care about the final 10 games or so, if only because a strong performance through those 10 games can help a team to peak throughout the playoffs. And you can hear the intent to increase the intensity in the words coming out of the Lakers leadership. In the past couple weeks, all of the important figures in Lakerdom have made mention of the need to up the intensity, to "find that sense of urgency". Lamar Odom talked about how teams are going to start finding out just how soft the Lakers are. Derek Fisher told the team to simply play hard from here on out. Kobe and Phil have both mentioned the phrase "sense of urgency", and Phil even backed it up by blasting the team for allowing the lowly Wizards to come back from 28 points down to lose by only 7 last night. Think about that for a second. Normally the most mellow, reserved coach in the league, the same guy who took both of the blowouts vs. Houston in last year's playoffs in stride, PJ jumped on his team for not stepping on the Wizards throats in a game that was (literally) over at half-time. Only at the end of the season.
This year, the schedule sets up rather nicely for the Lakers to have that strong finishing kick. Take a look at the final 12 games of the season:
It's not a murderer's row, but it's not Candyland either. There's only one game that jumps out as difficult to win under any circumstances (@Denver) and only 3 games that look like "There's no f-ing way the Lakers lose that" games (@Minny, Kings, Clippers)*. The games against Houston and New Orleans are likely to be wins, as those teams are no longer a part of the playoff picture, although we all know how much the Lakers love to underestimate the Rockets.
That leaves 6 games against the Western Conference middle class (+ Atlanta) which will make up the difference between a record of 6-6 or 11-1 down the stretch. 60 wins will require an 8-4 record over the last 12 games, and I think the Lakers can certainly get there comfortably, IF we do see an increased intensity. Hell, if the Lakers bring a chip on their shoulder into Denver, it's even plausible to imagine them sweeping the whole 12 (and entering the playoffs having won 18 straight), but to actually predict it would be the essence of biased analysis. A much more likely scenario is a closing record of 9-3, with probable losses coming against the Thunder, Nuggets, and Hawks. Added to our current 6 game win streak, the Lakers would finish the season on a 15-3 kick, which would certainly qualify as strong.
60 wins isn't an important benchmark, or telling statistic regarding championship caliber. The NBA champion normally has reached 60 wins, but there have been plenty of champions who did not (we should know, the 00-01 champions, who blasted through the playoffs at 15-1, were only 58-24 on the regular season). However, any performance down the stretch which does not see the Lakers reach 60 wins would have to be categorized as fading instead of finishing strong, so the meaning behind the benchmark is clear.
What do you think? Is 60 wins in the bag? How many wins do you think the Lakers will finish the season with?
**A note on the Minnesota game. Normally, there would be absolutely no circumstances under which a game against the T-wolves would be considered in any way tough. However, the game against Minnesota comes under the most ridiuculous back-to-back circumstances I think I've ever seen. The Lakers play in Denver at 7:30 PST (and it's a TNT game, so you just know that sucker isn't ending until 10:30. Then, they fly 700 miles to Minneapolis. The next night, they play the T-wolves in a game which starts at 5 PM PST. People think it's hard when you lose one hour in between back-to-backs, but the Lakers are about to lose 2.5 hours. All in all, the Lakers will arrive at their team hotel with roughly 14 hours to sleep and be at the arena for the next game. If Minnesota were in any way considered to be a competent team, this would be the definition of a schedule loss. Thanks, NBA.