Lakers, once 11-27, now surging and figuring things out

TIM REYNOLDS (AP Basketball Writer)
The Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) -- Only the biggest accomplishments are celebrated by the Los Angeles Lakers. They hang banners for championships, they retire jerseys for legends, they build statues for the elite.

Back-to-back winning months are no cause for a party.

But for a franchise that still may miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year - after not reaching them on five occasions, total, in its first 65 seasons - the results of late are worth noting. The Lakers had winning records in January and February, the first such stretch since March and April 2013, and a season that looked to be a disaster at the midway point is getting more than a little interesting.

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On Thursday, the Lakers went into Miami and opened March with a 131-113 win over the Heat.

''Early on, even when we weren't winning games, I could tell this was a group that is eventually going to be a really good basketball team,'' Lakers coach Luke Walton said. ''We went into training camp and the way that they worked, the way that they competed, the way they wanted to get better ... I knew the habits they were building. So I'm not surprised they were able to find a way to turn it around a little bit.''

At 27-34, the Lakers have already eclipsed last season's win total with 21 games remaining on the schedule. And whether it's this summer or next, the Lakers - who will have enough salary cap flexibility to land perhaps two max-contract targets in the upcoming free agency shopping sprees - will open their checkbook and get better.

For now, a young core is getting better the old-fashioned way. Even at this point in the season Walton is preaching fundamentals, as evidenced in practice in Miami on Wednesday when the Lakers focused on simple passes.

Lesson learned. Of the eight players who logged most of the minutes Thursday, seven had at least two assists.

''We're just young,'' Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas said. 'We've got the talent obviously. Everybody in the NBA knows that. We're a very talented group of guys, we're just young. These guys don't really know how to play the game of basketball yet at this level. They're learning by playing and that's the only thing that's going to help these guys.''

Walton is in his second season as the Lakers' coach, and it's his fourth season on an NBA staff when counting his time as an assistant (and for half of one season, de facto head coach) at Golden State. He's still only 37; there's been six players in the league this season who are older.

It's fitting that the league's youngest coach is leading the super-young Lakers.

The Lakers now have 316 double-digit scoring games this season by players under 30, and only four put up by a thirtysomething. And that old guy - Corey Brewer, all of 31 - isn't even a Laker anymore; he was waived this week and will be signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The kids are figuring things out. Thursday was the 16th consecutive time the Lakers scored at least 100 points.

Earlier this week, the Lakers put nine players in double figures on the way to beating Atlanta; they hadn't had that many score at least 10 points in a game since Jan. 7, 1987, the height of Pat Riley's Showtime era in Los Angeles.

''They play fast, they're young, they're athletic, they're confident,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. ''If the game is easy for them, that snowball just keeps rolling down the hill for them. You have to make it tough for them.''

Right now, few teams are making it too tough for the Lakers. And their turnaround has been dramatic.

The Lakers went 3-11 in December, the second-worst record in the league. In February, they went 7-3 and only Houston, Toronto and Utah had fewer losses during the month. They went 0-9 in home games from Nov. 29 through Jan. 5, losing by an average of 14 points - and have gone 9-0 at Staples Center since, winning by an average of 16 points.

They've beaten the Rockets, Celtics and Spurs, taken the Warriors to overtime twice (albeit losing both) and split four games with the Thunder. A team that looked like a purple-and-gold mess at 11-27 has somehow gone 16-7 since.

Walton points to two reasons why that happened.

''One, hard work. To me, that's always the answer,'' Walton said. ''And two, we tried to create a culture where we can withstand the tough times. There's always going to be tough times, whether you're on a good team, a bad team, a young team. Players know if you care about them and are willing to work with them, work for them, when things get tough they're not going to give in on you.''

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