The Los Angeles Lakers have the Western Conference’s best record, but two of the team’s stars feel they can play much better basketball.
They’ll try and start by helping Los Angeles atone for its worst performance of the season.
Three days after the Sacramento Kings handed the Lakers their first conference loss, the teams square off again Friday night at Staples Center, where Los Angeles has won eight straight.
The Lakers (18-3) rolled to a 14-1 start, winning by an average of 13.7 points and looking determined to return to the NBA finals.
Since the beginning of December, however, Los Angeles has looked considerably less invincible. The Lakers started the month with a loss at Indiana, then after three wins over sub-.500 Eastern Conference opponents, traveled to Sacramento on Tuesday and were flat from the outset.
The Kings had lost eight in a row at Arco Arena and 11 of 12 overall, but they held Los Angeles to 40.2 percent shooting and won 113-101.
“It’s probably our biggest win of the season, especially at home, since we’ve been struggling,” said Kings forward John Salmons, who had a team-high 21 points. “Hopefully we can grow from this. … We could look back at tonight’s game a year from now and say, ‘The Lakers game was the turning point of this season.’”
Sacramento (6-16) hasn’t played since, but the Lakers got a chance to get rid of the sour taste from that defeat the very next night. They returned home to face a depleted Phoenix team that had made a five-player trade earlier in the day and was also missing Shaquille O’Neal, but the Suns didn’t go quietly.
The Lakers held on for a 115-110 victory thanks to 28 points from Pau Gasol and seven from Kobe Bryant in the last 6 1/2 minutes. After the game, though, Gasol was lamenting his team’s defense rather than relishing another victory.
“We’re not playing our best,” said Gasol, averaging 23.5 points in his last 11 games against Sacramento. “Most of the time, I think we can do a lot better defensively. We’re giving up a lot of points. We have to consciously every single game we go out there and be focused on our defense. We know we can score.”
The Lakers allowed 94.1 points per game in their first 15 contests, but have yielded 106.5 in six games this month.
Center Andrew Bynum, who’s averaging 13.3 points and combining with Gasol to give Los Angeles a formidable 1-2 punch in the paint, agrees with his teammate.
“Our record is great,” said Bynum, who had 17 points against Phoenix after scoring eight in Sacramento. “(But) the way we’re playing, we’re not going to beat the good teams.”
Any potential climb up the standings by the Kings has been slowed by the absence of Kevin Martin, who’s averaging 20.8 points but has missed 12 games with a sprained right ankle. Sacramento is 2-10 without him, and though Martin played the first two games in December, he aggravated the injury last week and missed Tuesday’s game.
It’s unclear how long Martin will be out this time.
Salmons, averaging 19.4 points, has stepped up with Martin out. He had a strong performance during the Kings’ first road game against the Lakers on Nov. 23, scoring 24 points on 11-of-19 shooting. However, eight Lakers scored in double figures - led by Bryant with 24 - in a 118-108 Los Angeles win.