They’ve been on top of their game ever since - particularly the last time they took the court.
Coming off a rout of the NBA’s top team, the Lakers look to match a season high with their eighth straight victory Tuesday night by snapping a three-game skid in Atlanta.
A shocking 104-99 defeat at league-worst Cleveland on Feb. 16 was Los Angeles’ third straight, leaving the two-time defending champions with a rather sour taste heading into the break.
The Lakers (45-19) bounced back with a 104-80 victory over Atlanta (37-26) on Feb. 22, and they haven’t lost since. A win Tuesday would give them their longest streak since opening 8-0.
The victory that carried the most weight, however, came Sunday. Opening a four-game trip with a matchup against league-best San Antonio, Los Angeles snapped the Spurs’ 22-game home winning streak with a 99-83 win in which they led by as many as 32.
“We’ve improved a great deal. Defensively we’re minimizing our mistakes and not making as many mistakes as we were in the first half of the season,” said Kobe Bryant(notes), who had a game-high 26 points. “I think that’s the big difference.”
The Lakers allowed 97.5 points per game and 46.3 percent shooting in going 10-8 from Jan. 12-Feb. 16. Since the break, they’ve surrendered an average of 87.0 points while holding their opponents to 40.3 percent from the field.
Coach Phil Jackson gave much of the credit for that defensive improvement to assistant Chuck Person.
“He’s really been good with the guys and has handled it pretty well,” Jackson said. “We’ve taken the extra time defensively in practice rather than doing as much execution offensively as we have in the past.”
Bryant, meanwhile, is on the verge of an offensive milestone. With 13 points Tuesday he’ll surpass Moses Malone for sixth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list at 27,410.
The All-Star game MVP hasn’t been particularly sharp in recent visits to Philips Arena, though. Bryant has averaged 18.7 points and shot 41.1 percent in his last three games at Atlanta.
The Hawks kicked off a stretch of 10 of 11 at home by beating Chicago 83-80 on Wednesday, but they’ve dropped their last two. Atlanta allowed Oklahoma City to shoot 50.6 percent in a 111-104 loss Friday, then turned the ball over 21 times while falling 92-79 to New York on Sunday.
“Everybody’s tired physically,” coach Larry Drew said. “Everybody’s tired mentally.”
Bouncing back Tuesday won’t be easy for Horford. The two-time All-Star has averaged a career-low 8.3 points in seven games versus Los Angeles.
Guard Kirk Hinrich(notes) will be facing the Lakers for the first time with Atlanta, but he has a good idea what to expect. Hinrich’s teams have lost seven straight against Los Angeles while he was with Chicago and Washington.
“It’s a tough matchup for 29 teams in the league,” Hinrich said. “They share the ball, they play the right way, they’re coming off a big win. So it’s gonna be a tough task.”