Slumping Lakers could be in big trouble

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:54 PM ET

It’s as though the Lakers took for granted everything that made L.A. the team to beat in the NBA, a team eyeing a championship three-peat.

It’s as though all the attention to detail that helped L.A. win 17 of its first 18 games in the post all-star break schedule went by the wayside.

When stops were essential, none were produced.

When someone not named Kobe Bryant needed to step up, no one seemed willing.

All of the sudden, a team that was in contention for the No. 1 seed in the wild West with San Antonio is now in danger of dropping to the fourth slot.

Depending on the events of Monday night in Sacramento, where the Kings were playing host to the Oklahoma City Thunder and in Houston, where the Rockets were entertaining their state rival Mavs, L.A. is in must-win games as the regular season concludes on Wednesday.

“The measure of success is what you’ve just recently accomplished,” head coach Phil Jackson said. “Right now, we’re back in the middle of the pack.”

In the wake of a 120-106 home loss to the Thunder, the Lakers have dropped five in a row, their play eerily reminiscent of a three-game swoon that preceded the all-star game, a stretch that saw the Lakers lose three straight, including one setback in Cleveland.

When the Lakers are playing to their abilities, there aren’t many in the NBA capable of matching them, especially when it comes to frontcourt size.

Whenever the Lakers show signs of vulnerability, it’s easy to dismiss it as complacency.

Boredom, after all, occasional surfaces with a team as loaded and as accomplished as the Lakers.

But it shouldn’t happen entering the playoffs, a time used for refinement.

For Jackson, the end is near, whether it’s in the first round or whether it follows yet another championship parade.

Before their tip in Portland, players were fielding questions on Jackson’s possible successor.

If it were up to them, the players would welcome long-time assistant Brian Shaw, but that in itself reveals the drop off in focus.

“I’m surprised,” Jackson said about his team’s precipitous fall. “We were complacent a little bit. I told them (on the eve of Sunday’s OKC tip) I didn’t think we’d be able to turn it around in one game.”

With so much potential for playoff jockeying in the next two days, it’s hard to see the Lakers, given their advanced years, getting out of the West if they end up with the fourth seed.

“I think we started to look ahead and look above instead of staying in the present,” veteran Derek Fisher conceded. “This one (losing streak) is tough for us because we were playing so well. This is coming at a bad time for us.”

Around the rim

Gerald Wallace, the man known as Crash, has given Portland a much-needed edge. If the Blazers meet the Lakers in the opening round, fireworks are sure to erupt. In the last two meetings, Wallace and Ron Artest have gone after each other, earning double techs. “It was a point that needed to be made,” Wallace said of his latest run-in with Ron Ron. “I wasn’t going to back down. I play just as physical as he does. You know, it’s a physical game and that’s just how things go.”

With Wallace, acquired from Charlotte on trade deadline day, Portland is dangerous. “His name is no longer Gerald Wallace, it’s MVP,” LaMarcus Aldridge said. “He’s taking charges, blocking shots, he rebounds well, making big threes ... He’s been huge for us. I think people told me how tough he was, but you don’t know how tough he is until he plays. He puts it all out there.” Hence the Crash moniker ... Drew Gooden records his first career triple-double and some want to draw parallels with Magic Johnson, for reasons that defy credulity. “More like Tragic Johnson sometimes,” deadpanned Gooden. “But I try. I try to get my teammates going.” The Bucks forward reached the milestone midway through the third quarter against the Cavs ... Having clinched home court in the West, the Spurs can wrap up No. 1 overall seed in the NBA. “We’ve played this well all season long we’d love to finish out atop the NBA,” veteran big man Tim Duncan said. “We’re going to try to do the best of managing minutes and winning games and doing that all at the same time.” It’s no small feat, but if any team can it’s San Antonio.

All eyes on Derrick Williams

As the April 24 early-entry deadline for college underclassmen to declare for the draft draws nearer, the biggest speculation surrounds Arizona’s Derrick Williams.

There’s no question the scoring power forward will be a top-three pick in the June draft, but doubt continues to hover in the Arizona desert.

“I would anticipate that the decision would be more toward the deadline of April 24,” Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said.

“With Derrick, it’s about giving him the space and time. Thank God he’s not a guy who can’t wait to leave Tucson. He loves college. He loves the fans. He really enjoys playing as a part of our program.”

Added Miller: “This year is unique because of the lockout. There is not one person who can predict anything other than there is a really, really great chance that there will be one.”

Even if Williams declares for the draft, he can still pull out as long as he doesn’t sign with an agent.

Once a kid signs with an agent, he becomes NCAA ineligible.

Raps should deal Bargnani

In the NBA, virtually every player who steps on the floor is capable of going off.

In the NBA, it’s all about opportunity and seizing a moment.

Take Willie Green as an example, an unheralded player in New Orleans who had a decent run in Philly as part of the Sixers rotation.

Give a guy such as Green touches and minutes and it’s not difficult to see why he exploded for 31 points against Phoenix by making his first 12 shots in a row.

“I knew I was in a rhythm,” Green said. “I knew I was in a zone and I kept being aggressive, but I didn’t know I was 12-for-12.”

Jamal Crawford has posted 50 points for three different teams.

Closer to home, a guy such as Andrea Bargnani leads the Raptors in scoring because he has been asked to take more shots.

A guy such as Jerryd Bayless is stepping up because he’s getting more minutes.

But when the Raptors do their year-end review, they have to realize that Bayless is far from being a floor general.

There’s no point in rehashing the Bargnani issue because it’s been beaten to death.

The bottom line is this: If the Raptors are truly prepared to move forward, they must rid themselves of Bargnani.

Grizzlies hope for history

Now that they’re in, the Memphis Grizzlies are hoping to do what no other Grizzlies team has done in the post-season.

For a team that began in Vancouver and started to become legitimate under Jerry West, Hubie Brown and Pau Gasol when it relocated, the Grizzlies have never won a playoff game.

It may happen this spring.

At least there’s a chance based on the way Memphis has been playing heading into the regular season’s final two games, including a key road tip Tuesday night in Portland.

“We’ve been through a lot,” point guard Mike Conley said. “Those 20-win seasons that we’ve had, the bumps and trades and different things going back and forth. We’ve had a tough road. To be here right now, you couldn’t ask for a better way for it to turn out.”

Amazingly, they’ve done it without an injured Rudy Gay.

In their past 11 games, Memphis has won nine, including wins over Boston and San Antonio.

Tony Allen left the Celtics in free agency, giving Memphis perimeter defence and athleticism.

“We just have a great group of guys around us,” he said of the Grizzlies. “For the most part, we are where we want to be. It’s on us to continue this journey.”

Pistons sale should bring clarity

One of the first orders of business when the NBA’s board of governors meets later this week is to rubber stamp the sale of the Detroit Pistons to billionaire California investor Tom Gores.

Since 1974, the Pistons have been owned by the Davidson family, beginning with the family patriarch in Bill Davidson until his death two years ago.

It’s not known what Gores plans to do with the Pistons, especially with so many unknowns surrounding the NBA and its labour deal.

But we all know that the arrival of Gores ushers in a new era in Detroit basketball.

With stability now at the top, it’s sure to trickle all the way down to every layer of the basketball operations.

“I’m happy (Karen Davidson) was able to sell the team and happy there’s a new owner who loves Detroit and loves Detroit basketball,” veteran Pistons forward/centre Ben Wallace said. “He’s going to try to change this around and get us back on track.”

There’s speculation in Motown that Joe Dumars will continue to call the shots.

One of the first orders of business to sack John Kuester and proceed with a new head coach.

Rodney Stuckey has wallowed under Kuester, Richard Hamilton rotted away on the bench and the Pistons were disjointed and dysfunctional all season.

Games of the week

Spurs at Lakers, Tuesday

Out of nowhere, L.A. needs to hold court and then beat Kings in Sac-town in season finale.

Knicks at Celtics, Wednesday

Potentially a first-round meeting; Celtics looked terrible in beat-down by Heat on Sunday.

Heat at Raptors, Wednesday

Imagine T.O. knocking off Bosh and denying Heat No. 2 seed? Stranger things have happened.


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