Don't look now but here come the Los Angeles Lakers.
Written off as dead by most for much of this season, the Lakers are suddenly showing a pulse entering Tuesday's showdown with the Thunder.
It's a pulse that might just push the team with the league's highest payroll into the playoffs.
Don't laugh. It's true, no matter how comical.
L.A. makes its second and final visit to Chesapeake Energy Arena with a 30-30 record. It's the first time the Lakers were .500 since Dec. 28, when they were 15-15.
Before Monday's games, the Lakers trailed eighth-seeded Houston by just 21/2 games. Utah, which had been only percentage points ahead of the Rockets for seventh, held an identical lead over the Lakers.
But the Lakers have been one of the hottest teams in the conference.
L.A. has won five of its past six games and appears to be building a head of steam in the home stretch of the season. If the Lakers keep it up, a potential first round playoff series against the Thunder is not out of the question — a far cry from two months ago.
“I think the Lakers are the most disappointing team,” said TNT analyst Kenny Smith in a conference call with reporters last month. “Here's a team that has four guys that are going to be in the Hall of Fame, and they have five guys, six guys who have been All-Stars on their team and they're the ninth seed, 10th seed … That would be the biggest upset of not making the playoffs in the history of basketball if they don't make the playoffs.”
Since slipping to 17-25 on Jan. 23, though, the Lakers have the fourth-best record in the NBA at 13-5 and the third best in the West behind only San Antonio (13-3) and Denver (12-4).
If the Lakers do indeed make the playoffs, it's possible they look back on their nine-point win over the Thunder on Jan. 27 as the turning point.
“It feels good to finally beat a team that's worth a (expletive),” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said after that last meeting.
Most encouraging for the Lakers is that the defensive ills that plagued them early in the year are becoming more of a problem of the past. In the first 42 games, the Lakers allowed 101.5 points on average. Over the last 18 games, however, L.A. has shed 1 1/2 points from that mark and has yielded only 95.5 points per game in its past 13 wins.
Bryant, meanwhile, has reverted back to his old self of late as a scoring machine. In the last five games — four of them wins — Bryant has averaged 34.8 points on 56.9 percent shooting. But he's also maintained much of the all-around floor game that's he used recently to make the Lakers more dangerous, averaging 7.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.2 steals over that same span.
Between the Lakers' renewed defense and Bryant's continued dominance, the Thunder has to hope to avoid a repeat of the last meeting. In that one, OKC scored just 96 points and watched the Lakers run away with the game in the fourth quarter. Bryant scored 21 points with nine rebounds and 14 assists.
“Just try not to let their crowd really get into the game, which is easier said than done,” said Lakers guard Steve Blake. “It's one of the toughest places to play in the NBA. We have to somehow try to keep them off rhythm. It's not going to be easy but we can do it.”
The last time the Lakers were in town they suffered a six-point loss.
But much has changed since.
“Last time we played them in OKC, we had a good game,” said Dwight Howard. “As a team, I think we made a big step that game.”