Out of Bounds with Jason Riley

After watching the Lakers squeak out a victory in Minnesota last night, I made the mistake of flipping on the 81st Annual ‘Self-Absorption’ Awards (I.e. the Oscars). Two hours later, I woke up from an intense nap to find that I had drooled a miniature Laguna Beach all over my couch pillow. There was just something about listening to Sean Penn praise himself, and those who praise him for praising him, that forced my mind into a slight state of comatose. I mean, do we really need a whole show to celebrate with the most celebrated people in the world as they celebrate themselves?

Apparently, somebody thinks so.

Back in Lakerland, it’s going to be vitally important that the Lakers don’t metaphorically fall asleep during a relatively unexciting twenty-six game stretch to close out the regular season. During that span, the Lakers only have six games (5/6 on the road) left against teams that are currently in the top four places of either conference.

Aside from those, their schedule is sprinkled with games against Oklahoma City (twice), Memphis (twice), Sacramento, Charlotte, Minnesota and that other team from Los Angeles. Thus far, the Lakers have taken care of business against teams considered to pose a serious threat to their NBA championship aspirations.

If the Lakers have shown any sort of vulnerability this season, it’s against teams they know won’t be there in May and June. Of their ten losses this year, five of them have come against teams they were heavily favored to beat:

In the bigger picture, there are three story-lines to follow during this final stretch of the 2008-2009 season:

Winning the battle to play at Staples Center.
How much of an advantage is playing at home for the three main contenders?

I’d say that about sums it up. As it currently stands, the Lakers are winning the fight for home-court throughout and they also have the tiebreaker against both teams perusing them:

It’ll be interesting to watch how this develops as the seasons winds down.

Building momentum for the Playoffs.
Peaking at the right time, in any sport, is something that can propel or vanquish you, no matter how you’ve played the rest of the season. At the beginning of the decade when the Lakers were regularly hanging banners in June, they made a habit of closing the regular season with momentum:

This season, the Lakers play nine of their last fourteen games on the road, including a seven game trip to close out March and kick off April. If we’re going to build positive momentum for the playoffs, it will have to be done on the road. Fortunately for us, we have the best road record in the League (20-6). Let’s see if we can finish that way.

Getting back, and staying, healthy.
It’s well documented that the Lakers sorely missed the services of Andrew Bynum and a healthy Trevor Ariza in last years’ NBA Finals. While the injury bug has blasted some of the NBA’s elite recently (KG, Amare, Bynum), staying healthy could be the difference between a ring ceremony and an off-season of what if’s.

Fortunately for Kobe, we won’t play Cleveland again unless we both make it to the NBA Finals. Fortunately for Andrew, Memphis won’t be around in the playoffs. If the Lakers can stay healthy, we have to be considered the favorites to hang up number fifteen in the rafters at Staples Center.

For the time being, let’s just hops Sean Penn doesn’t make any pre-game speeches.

Jason Riley is a columnist for the Lakers Nation. In addition to this column, he writes on an array of topics that you can check out by visiting J-Ri.com. You can email him by clicking here, or look him up on Facebook.