ORLANDO – The Los Angeles Lakers have heard questions all year about whether they’re cut out for a fourth straight trip to the NBA finals, and those only grew louder during a recent stretch of five losses in nine games.
The Lakers’ current road trip is leaving little doubt they’re primed for another deep postseason run.
Los Angeles looks to make it 5 for 5 on the trip Sunday afternoon against the Orlando Magic, who are struggling against top competition and seem to have coach Stan Van Gundy quickly losing patience.
The Lakers (38-16) suffered one three-game losing streak en route to winning the past two NBA championships, so a little doubt began to surface after a four-game skid in late November and a three-game slide in late December.
Los Angeles went 4-5 prior to its seven-game road trip, but if it can channel its performance since leaving Staples Center once the playoffs begin, coach Phil Jackson’s team should be in good shape. The Lakers won tight contests at New Orleans, Memphis and Boston before routing the Knicks 113-96 on Friday night.
“We’re feeling good about what we’re doing,” said Pau Gasol, who’s averaged 22.8 points on the trip. “We’ve been successful playing the way we’re playing. Active defensively. Understanding the important job on the defensive end and then playing pretty solid on the offensive end. We like the way things are going. We just got to keep it up.”
Los Angeles shot 53.6 percent against the Knicks – its first time above 50 percent in eight games – but it’s really stepped up defensively. The Lakers have held their last three opponents to an average of 88.7 points and 40.4 percent shooting.
Los Angeles is now 19-10 against teams with winning records, while Orlando (34-21) has had plenty of trouble beating good opponents. The Magic fell to 11-16 versus above-.500 teams with a 99-93 home loss to New Orleans on Friday.
During Orlando’s 9-9 stretch since Jan. 12, it’s 0-8 against teams with winning records – much to Van Gundy’s dismay.
“Right now if you just look at the results, bottom line is that we can’t beat a good team,” Van Gundy said. “… We haven’t been able to play at the level we need to play. It’s going to have to change.
“We get another chance on Sunday, but we haven’t been able to raise our game to that level.”
Dwight Howard’s done everything he can over the past month, averaging 25.1 points and 15.5 rebounds, but big games from the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year haven’t equaled wins. The Magic are 2-6 in that stretch when Howard scores 25 or more and 7-3 when he scores 22 or fewer.
Howard has averaged 16.5 points and 14.0 rebounds in the Lakers’ last two trips to Orlando – both Magic victories.
Finding secondary help has been Orlando’s biggest problem. Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas are shooting a combined 38.9 percent in the past 18 games – nearly six percent beneath what they’d shot in Magic uniforms prior to Jan. 12.
Perhaps Nelson, who’s averaged 10.2 points in his last nine games, can step up Sunday. Orlando has won three of four from the Lakers the past two seasons, and Nelson has averaged 23.3 points in the victories.
Kobe Bryant has averaged 34.0 points in his last seven road games against the Magic, though he’s also averaged 26.7 attempts.