Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
With Pau Gasol returning, Dwight Howard looking healthier than he has all season, and Kobe Bryant flying around defensively, the time is now for the Lakers to make a real push towards a respectable season.
The 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers season has seemed almost cosmic so far in its ability to produce failure. The head coach is a problem, so the head coach gets fired. Except, when he gets fired, both the #1 and #2 point guards sustain long term injuries, and the new coach needs a proper point guard to run his system. The center is playing through recovery from serious back surgery, and looks to be getting worse and not better, and at the same time, the star power forward/back up center needs ten games to recover from knee tendinitis. When he returns, he develops plantar fasciitis. The star point guard finally comes back, the team wins a few games, things start to look up, and then all three of the Lakers' primary big men are ruled out with injury at the same time, during a stretch of games that would have been tough to win with a fully healthy roster. This year's Lakers squad is a case study in a lot of things: The difficulty of blending egos, the need to earn acclaim without assuming it will be handed to you, and (possibly) how the old ways of thinking about basketball teams are no longer valid. But the most obvious case study of all is in how difficult it is to persevere in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
The Lakers have faced overwhelming obstacles this season, and they have not persevered very well. Now, the Lakers are presented with an opportunity in which the planets seem to be aligning in the right way, for once. Pau Gasol will return to the court tonight, allowing the Lakers to play their full compliment of stars for just the ninth time this season. Earl Clark has stepped into the Jordan Hill energy role so seamlessly that we've been forced to wonder why he wasn't playing all along.Since his return from a shoulder injury, Dwight Howard has looked stronger and more agile than at any other point this season. All of that corresponds, perhaps not so coincidentally, with Kobe Bryant's re-dedication to defensive energy along with his transition to a role of guarding the primary ball handler the past couple games. The Lakers have been well above their season average, or for that matter, anybody in the league's, in assisted baskets the past two games.
After the return of Steve Nash brought promise, the big man injuries brought a new dose of doom and gloom. But, with Clark's emergence, and now the return of both Howard and Gasol, the Lakers are as whole as they are going to get. After the false start of Nash's return, if the Lakers are going to turn this season into a semi-respectable one, it will start right now. That makes tonight's opponent all too fitting.
Tonight, the Miami Heat come to Staples Center. LeBron James' Miami Heat. The defending champion Miami Heat. The original super-team Miami Heat. The "We went through a similar period of struggle when we first came together" Miami Heat. Everything that is tonight's opponent symbolically represents either what the Lakers are, or what they want to become, and beating a team so symbolic of the Lakers' failures will provide a tremendous amount of hope regarding the Lakers' future successes. So yeah, tonight's game ... kinda important.
Then again, all Lakers games are kinda important these days. Such is the result of a horribly disappointing first half of the season. And yet, through recent developments, the prospect of the Lakers not only making the playoffs, but avoiding the top two playoff seeds in the first round seems remarkably attainable. The three teams directly in front of the Lakers in the Western Conference standings have lost a combined 13 straight games. They stand just two losses behind the 7th place Utah, and four losses behind 6th place Denver. The Lakers have a rather large window of opportunity staring them in the face, but they need to start winning games like the one they have tonight to prevent the window from closing.
And for all the daunting terms used to describe the Miami Heat previously, they seem to be an eminently beatable squad at the moment. Dealing with an entirely different set of motivational problems that have to do with being at the top of the mountain and not wanting to work quite so hard to climb it all over again, Miami is just 5-5 in the last 10 games, with recent losses to many of the teams that the Lakers are currently chasing in the Western Conference. They are still the best team in the Eastern Conference, both by record and by reputation, and as such they remain a formidable opponent. But, if the Lakers are to become anything close to the elite team they were expected to be, tonight's game, at home, against an opponent that isn't exactly shooting the moon, is one they should be able to win.
That win would mean a great deal. It would mean the Lakers will have beaten the East's two best teams. It will give them a three game winning streak, with another two very winnable games before they start having to deal with more of the West's best in the fight to regain .500. And it will provide tangible momentum again. It wouldn't be the first time we've felt good about the Lakers this season, but the last time we felt good about them, it took three injuries at two positions in the same game to derail us. That can't happen again, right? Right?
Win the game, Lakers, and let us find out what you can become.