The Los Angeles Lakers have the Western Conference’s top seed all but wrapped up, so going 2-2 thus far on a strenuous five-game road trip doesn’t seem like much of a reason to panic.
The defending champions see it a bit differently.
Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom were furious with the Lakers’ effort in their latest loss, but to bounce back with a trip-ending victory tonight they’ll have to snap the Atlanta Hawks’ eight-game home winning streak.
Los Angeles (54-20) picked up its seventh straight win to kick off its five-game trip, limiting San Antonio to 35 points after halftime in a come-from-behind 92-83 win.
The Lakers’ defense hasn’t been nearly as sharp since. Los Angeles fell behind by 33 and allowed Oklahoma City to shoot nearly 50 percent in a 91-75 loss Saturday, then Phil Jackson said he wasn’t happy as the Lakers let a 21-point lead dwindle to single digits late in a 109-101 win at Houston one night later.
Los Angeles was outplayed throughout Monday’s visit to New Orleans, drawing the postgame ire of Bryant and Odom. The last-place Hornets shot 49.3 percent and built a 17-point fourth-quarter lead in a 108-100 victory.
"We just didn’t play well,’’ said Bryant, who had 31 points but drew the line at offering just a few stern words about the team’s performance.
"It’s for my own good."
Odom, who’s starting for the injured Andrew Bynum, took it a step further.
"When we don’t play defense, and do the intangibles as far as basketball is concerned, it’s unacceptable," Odom told the NBA’s official Web site. "... You’ve got to play defense. Communication is lacking. The chemistry for some reason is not clicking."
The Lakers have a five-game lead on Dallas for the West’s top seed, but they’d need a five-game swing over the final eight games to catch Cleveland for the league’s best record.
The Hawks, on the other hand, could dramatically alter their post-season path over the season’s final two weeks. Catching Orlando — currently 4 1/2 games ahead for the Southeast Division lead — may be nearly impossible, but Atlanta is tied with Boston for the No. 3 seed and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Home games are especially huge for the Hawks considering they’re 1-8 away from Philips Arena over the last two postseasons. They’ve lost their past three on the road, but have won eight straight at home after Sunday’s 94-84 victory over Indiana.
Atlanta hasn’t won nine in a row on its home floor since a remarkable 20-game run Nov. 12, 1996-Feb. 12, 1997. After facing the Lakers, a trip to potential second-round opponent Cleveland awaits Friday.
"It’s not going to be easy,’’ said Jamal Crawford, who’s shooting 37.2 percent over his last six games - down from 45.8 in his first 66. "They’re two tough teams, two of the best in the league.’’
The Hawks have won their last two home meetings with the Lakers - limiting Bryant to 14.0 points per game - but lost 118-110 on Nov. 1 at Staples Center as Bryant scored 41 and Bynum added 21.
Bynum won’t be available Wednesday, but former Hawks draft pick Pau Gasol - who missed the first meeting - will. Gasol had his second career 20-20 game (26 points, 22 rebounds) in the loss at New Orleans.
To ensure he doesn’t have another, Atlanta needs more from Al Horford and Josh Smith. The Hawks’ frontcourt duo averages 30.1 points and 18.5 rebounds, but have been held to 14.3 points and 12.5 boards per game in their last four meetings with the Lakers.