Following the All-Star break, the Los Angeles Lakers returned to the court with a refreshed attitude and a sharpened focus that has them tied for the final playoffs spot in the Western Conference entering Sunday’s home game against the Chicago Bulls.
After winning seven of their last nine games, the Lakers suddenly boast a winning record and are only 2.5 games back of sixth place. With a relatively lenient schedule to finish the season, LA potentially has an opportunity to avoid the dreaded duo of San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the first round.
On Sunday, however, the Lakers face the immediate task of winning against the Chicago Bulls. A win would mean the Lakers take over the eighth seed and tap their toes into the playoffs pool.
Chicago is not an easy opponent by any means, and the Bulls are a rare breed in that they have a better away record than home record. No other top 20 team can claim the same.
Luckily for the Lakers, Chicago enters Staples Center on a three-game road losing streak.
Also, the Lakers have not lost at Staples Center since the All-Star break, and the purple and gold colored crowd has been energized to playoffs levels sensing the importance of each late regular season game.
Along with energizing Lakers fans, Kobe Bryant’s recent performances have silenced the Clippers voices for the moment, and the Lakers are the talk of LA once again.
Over the past eight games, Bryant has averaged an unbelievable 35.9 points to go along with 6.5 rebounds and 6.9 assists. He’s scored over 40 points his last two times on the floor, and the Lakers have been winning in heart stopping style.
Along with Bryant, Dwight Howard is finally starting to look like the dominant defensive presence the Lakers desperately need. He recorded three steals and at least four blocks in the Lakers’ comebacks against the Raptors and Hornets. The Lakers’ center has recorded at least four blocks in four of the last six games, and his movement and activity has been noticeably improved.
To go along with his steals and blocks, Howard’s activity on the boards has been consistent following the All-Star break. He is averaging 14 rebounds following the break, and he has pulled down at least 12 rebounds in each of the last nine games.
In addition, the understanding between Bryant and Howard is as strong as it has ever been, and the balance of the Lakers appears to be leveling at the perfect time. Although they still have plenty of flaws, the Lakers have one of the most lethal scorers in the history of the sport and the best defensive player in the game (if healthy) playing on the same page.
The offense-defense combination may have taken a few months longer to figure out than most imagined, but the Lakers are moving in the right direction at the right time.
On Sunday, the Bulls provide the latest challenge for the resurgent Lakers.