Before the season it was easy to look at this particular part of the schedule as one that would really test the Lakers. The Grammy road trip is always a grueling one, but the backloaded nature of this trip has been especially taxing when you consider who has been on the docket (anytime the C’s appear on the schedule we should be prepared for a fair amount of mental and physical energy being expended, throw in Orlando and those pesky Bobcats and you get the picture). Beyond this trip though, the sheer volume of basketball that the team has played from the start of the new year up until the All-Star break may also be catching up to the team.
Since the calendar turned to 2011, the Lakers have played 23 games in 45 days (essentially a game every other day) and have only had more than one day off in between games 3 times. For any team, that’s a heavy load but for a team whose core has a lot of miles on its legs this is more problematic. I don’t think you’ll find too many better conditioned athletes at their positions and age than Fisher, Kobe, and Gasol (plus Odom’s off-season work with Team USA has him in great shape), but all of these guys seem a bit worn down to me. Once you add a clearly not yet in peak shape Bynum and that’s 5 of the Lakers 8 main rotation players that don’t look in peak form from a conditioning standpoint. (Missing Barnes hurts too, but that’s a topic for another day.)
The examples of this are prevalent, too. When watching the past few games, too often I’ve seen players jogging back on defense after turnovers or when a speedy guard turns on the jets to try and beat the Lakers up court. When a long rebound bounces out the Lakers have seemed a step slow to the ball (even more so than usual). Call it age if you’d like, but I can’t help but think the recent run of heavy action has started to take its toll on the team.
Obviously, I wouldn’t have made this point just 4 days ago when the Lakers were coming off back to back wins over the Knicks and Celtics and looking as strong as they have all season. So I’m sure this seems all too convenient an excuse after two straight losses. But if you watched the Magic game and the debacle that was last night’s game vs. the Bobcats, it’s safe to say that this team has somewhat hit a wall both physically and mentally.
On the flip side, I know it’s easy to say that this team just stopped caring after the C’s and Knicks game. That reasoning fits nicely into the season long narrative that this team is complacent and apathetic towards the regular season and is just waiting for the playoffs to really start trying. For me though, that’s a bit too easy an explanation. This team knows what it takes to win and understands that forming good habits in order to have positive experience to pull on is a goal and part of the process that they preach about when discussing the journey of a season. So seeing them struggle to find that resolve that they’ve shown in the past has me thinking it’s not just a matter of a “ho-hum, just another regular season game” mindset from the players. Anyone that read Odom’s quotes after the game knows this team still takes these games seriously and the losses personally.
So, you’ll find no happier fan than me when the Lakers are finally done with this road trip and go into the all-star break. Even though Kobe and Pau will play in the game and Los Angeles is the host city, the fact that the team won’t have to play any meaningful games and get to relax off the court (in whatever way they choose) will be a good getaway. I’ve always been a firm believer in the old saying that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” And while you’ll never hear me call these guys cowards, it’s not a stretch to say that in these last few games when the going got tough the Lakers didn’t have a lot in reserve to push back very hard. So, I’m really looking forward to this break for the team. I have a feeling they’ll need it in preparation for the final push towards the playoffs.