LOS ANGELES -- Every training camp, Phil Jackson orders a drill in which his team has to make a combined 82 full-court layups within a span of two minutes. If the players need more time, they start over and do it again. Jackson rarely runs the drill during the season, lest he wear out veteran legs, but he dusted it off during a break in the playoffs last spring, and then watched the Lakers sprint to their second straight title.
At practice Monday, Jackson told players to line up under the basket, and they knew what was coming next.
"I don't know if it was conditioning," said Lamar Odom, "or punishment."
The drill is called 82s, an appropriate moniker, since it honors the importance of the regular season. The Lakers have treated their first 34 games like an addendum to the exhibition schedule. This is a team long prone to bouts of complacency -- as recently as last March, they lost six times in a month -- but usually they would at least make the endings interesting. What's alarming is the ease with which they are currently being disposed. Memphis and Milwaukee beat them by 19, Miami by 16, San Antonio by 15, and that was just in the past two weeks, with three of the four embarrassments at home.
"It's good for us to get a nice butt-kicking sometimes," said Odom, inadvertently voicing part of the Lakers' problem. At times they can have too much perspective. They talk endlessly about pacing themselves for the playoffs, focusing on June instead of January, and yet they are jeopardizing their chances in June right here in January. The Lakers have relied heavily on home-court advantage in each of the past two title runs, and Jackson mentioned Monday that he hopes to have home court for at least one round of the playoffs, an acknowledgment that they may already be playing for second in the West.
The Lakers have more at stake this season than they let on. They are looking to match the Celtics with their 17th championship. Kobe Bryant is looking to match Michael Jordan with his sixth. Jackson is looking for a fourth three-peat and writing a book about what he has termed his "last stand." When he accepted that book deal, he clearly was not envisioning a No. 5 seed in the West, with a first-round playoff exit in Oklahoma City.
The Lakers are not much different than they were last year. They are actually scoring more points and shooting at a higher percentage. They are allowing more points, too, but their field goal defense is slightly improved. Derek Fisher is not providing a lot of offense, but Steve Blake is spelling him. Ron Artest is not providing a lot of anything, but Matt Barnes is overshadowing him. Andrew Bynum still has a brace on his knee.
Since Jackson has successfully navigated his way to three three-peats before, he understands the unique challenge of motivating a two-time champion, especially when it starts the season 8-0. "It's intrigue," he said. "Keeping them intrigued."
Boredom is a popular explanation for the Lakers' lulls, but it is too simple. After the Lakers were blown out Sunday by Memphis, and booed by their own fans in the fourth quarter, Bynum explained that players were deviating more than usual from the triangle offense. The triangle is predicated on ball movement and the Lakers are well suited to run it because they have three big men -- Bynum, Odom and Pau Gasol -- who can pass and catch like oversized guards. When they are not working the ball inside, the Lakers become a jump-shooting team, and a mediocre one at that. Gasol was upset when he took only eight shots in San Antonio. He took just four in the second half against Memphis.
This is not a new problem for the Lakers, and as Fisher points out, it's entirely correctable. When the ball does not move, Bryant is the obvious receptacle for blame, and indeed Jackson said that Bryant "had to screw up" Sunday's game by taking 12 shots in the third quarter. The phrase provided much talk-show fodder, but in context, it was clear that Jackson meant Bryant had to change the pace of the game out of necessity.
The Lakers could all use some of Bryant's impatience. He has begun practicing regularly -- he usually skips practices to rest -- and prodded reporters Sunday to criticize the team for looking too far ahead. Jackson has taken his cues, indicating that he will limit off days in the future and expressing concern about some players being distracted by "outside activity." Jackson would not identify anyone by name, but it's obvious that Artest has been making a far greater contribution to mental-health charities than to the Lakers.
The Lakers say they are getting serious now, though of course they have said the same in the past, and not proved it until the middle of May. Even when they ran their 82s on Monday, they needed several attempts to crack the two-minute barrier. But they eventually beat the clock, and therein lies the root of their confidence, that they can show up late and still win when it matters.