L.A. Lakers Struggle Through First Half Of Season

The Los Angeles Lakers are trying to turn around what has become a nightmare NBA season. A team with so many expectations may struggle to make the playoffs. They begin a seven-game road trip Wednesday.

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The Los Angeles Lakers beat the New Orleans Hornets last night, 111-to-106. It was a normally forgettable late January game. But every victory means something to a Lakers team suffering through a dreadful first half of the season. Last night's win was the Lakers' third in a row. It means there are signs of life for a team that was expected to dominate this year. And the big reason for that: L.A.'s best player has taken on a new role.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The video plays before every Lakers' game at staples center in L.A. reminding all in attendance of the pedigree, the tradition.

CHICK HEARN: Hello, everybody. This is Chick Hearn, voice of the Los Angeles Lakers. And you're about to hear some very exciting basketball.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDMAN: A cavalcade of stars follows on the big screen, from bespectacled big man George Mikan to Kareem to Magic to Kobe. The words 16 NBA titles flash, so incongruous, considering the words used to describe this year's team - every possible negative adjective as the Lakers have flailed and feuded, and not come close the championship expectation that accompanied the arrival of two all-stars: center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash.

But then, recently, a heartbeat. A win over Utah. A win over the NBA's best team, Oklahoma City. And last night, a 12-point halftime lead over a not-so-good New Orleans Hornet team, had Michael Keeler and his friends - all longtime Lakers fans - maybe getting a little bit ahead of themselves.

MICHAEL KEELER: I'm not worried. We'll make the playoffs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You haven't drank the two beers yet.

KEELER: That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're just holding them.

GOLDMAN: Chances are they were spilling them as the game wound down, and the Lakers coughed up their big advantage and led by only one, with under two minutes to play. But then this...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: Lakers forward Earl Clark scored the first two of nine final points that salted away the game. Significantly, Clark scored after getting a pass from Kobe Bryant. For Bryant, the NBA's fifth all-time leading scorer, it was his 11th assist, following 14 assists in each of the two previous wins. Mid-season, shooting guard Kobe Bryant has redefined his role - from scorer to facilitator.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: And it thrills the player the Lakers hired this season to do that, one of the greatest facilitators ever, point guard Steve Nash.

STEVE NASH: It's been exciting to see him, you know, to take on that role. And I think he's made his teammates better and I think it's picked up our defense, because everyone felt like they're part of it.

GOLDMAN: Bryant says he's enjoying getting his teammates more involved. The Lakers had six players in double figures last night. And he says he enjoys proving to doubters that he can be just as effective passing the ball, as he can firing up shot after shot

KOBE BRYANT: When I focus in on something I become obsessed about it. And want to be perfect at it. And that's just my personality. So if I was going to be a point guard, I'd just obsess over it and wouldn't stop till I got it absolutely right.

GOLDMAN: That's what you're obsessed about now?

BRYANT: Can you tell?

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: The Lakers' record is 20 and 25. Hardly world-beating or playoff contending. Tonight they begin a seven-game road trip that Bryant says is hugely important. And it'll probably determine whether head coach Mike D'Antoni was right last night, when he lamented at how long it's taken the Lakers to get it. But he said: Better late than never.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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