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On basketball

Something’s missing in LA

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — Lakers fans don’t have to look far to find an underachieving regular-season team that made a run to the NBA Finals.

Last year’s Lakers-Celtics clash provided two examples, in fact. The Celtics won 50 games, a far cry from the 70 some projected when they regained a healthy Kevin Garnett and signed Rasheed Wallace.

The Lakers, meanwhile, were a disappointing 57-25 before topping the Thunder, Jazz, Suns, and Celtics to win a second consecutive NBA championship.

And through 47 games this season, the Lakers are projected to win . . . 57 games. Yet the doubters and detractors have surfaced like termites to declare the Lakers’ reign over.

Los Angeles is not helping its image with losses such as Friday’s 100-95 defeat to Sacramento, a game the Kings led by as many as 20 points. The Lakers are a distracted bunch, much like the Celtics were last season, anxious for March to arrive and seeking a reason to be serious.

Hall of Famer Jerry West recently commented that the Lakers were getting old and it shows in their defense. The Lakers are a respectable fourth in opposing field goal percentage but 10th in points allowed. And those younger teams that used to wilt at the sight of those gold banners hanging in Staples Center are no longer intimidated.

Memphis, Milwaukee, and Indiana all have celebrated victories on the Lakers’ home floor. Of more concern, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest are enduring poor shooting seasons. Andrew Bynum is again coming off injury. Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant have been steady, but there is definitely slippage.

In preparation for today’s meeting with the Celtics, coach Phil Jackson held a 2 1/2-hour practice yesterday in El Segundo, Calif., trying to discourage his team from waiting until March for motivation.

“I can’t really tell you what to expect [today],’’ he said. “We haven’t been consistent in the last six games.

“We had a little run. I thought maybe we could make another run with this home stand, but we’re struggling a little bit.

“We know what the problems are. We’re turning the ball over at inopportune moments. We’re not executing our offense very well. Our transition defense is not, as a result, very good.’’

With the surprising success of the San Antonio Spurs, a series of disturbing losses to fellow title-contending teams and a potential plateauing of Bryant, there is concern the Lakers may not advance past the second round. Teams are producing fresh blueprints to beat the Lakers. Take the Kings, who pounded the ball in the paint at will, collecting a combined 57 points and 25 rebounds from DeMarcus Cousins, Carl Landry, and Samuel Dalembert.

Bynum picked up four rebounds in 23 minutes, Artest zero in 23 minutes.

“We know that sustaining that [championship] pace is going to be difficult,’’ Jackson said. “We have to get back on that horse and get going.

“We’re not playing every team the way we want to and that has a lot to do with our opponents. Our players have to become better students of the opponents they’re playing.’’

Bryant played “angry man’’ after the Milwaukee and Memphis losses, but now he appears resigned to the fact that this team will lose badly on occasion. He wasn’t seething yesterday.

Every team has a distinct personality, and this one doesn’t have the passion or execution of Lakers past.

“It’s just consistency,’’ Bryant said. “You just continue to get better in what you’re doing.

“We’ve been pretty good, though. We’ve had some tough losses that jump out at you, but defensively we’ve been pretty good all year.

“It’s just about having more consistency, and we have so many high expectations for ourselves here that we have these little slip-ups that tend to get magnified a little more.’’

Bryant insisted the Lakers will be fine, but it was hard to determine whether he was being completely serious.

“We’re right where we need to be,’’ he said. “Defense and rebounding gets it done and we’re pretty good.

“Things are pretty clear for us right now. We know what we have to do and we’re doing a much better job at it. I’m pleased with how we’re progressing.’’

The Lakers publicly show no panic, and they shouldn’t. They, like the Celtics, are fully capable of regaining their championship form during the playoffs. But there is also a collective understanding that the window is closing. Jackson has freely discussed retiring. Fisher is one of 10 players 30 years old or older. And Artest is reaching the customary time where he wears out his welcome with a team.

The Celtics are taking the regular season more seriously, but the Lakers need vintage Bryant and additional help to return to championship caliber.

“The expectation level that we’ve set for ourselves, it just doesn’t feel great,’’ said Fisher. “But to be 33-14 and trying to accomplish what we’ve set out to accomplish hasn’t been done in recent memory.

“We’re not in that bad of a spot but because of how good we know we can be, how good people feel we can be.

“We’re harder on ourselves at times than maybe we should be. But that comes with being a champion. You never feel good about where you are.’’

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