Road Worriers?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Phil Jackson doesn’t have to say anything.

We already know.

The Lakers continue to struggle on the road and their head coach, superstar (Kobe Bryant) and fan base (Laker Nation) realize that the aura of dominance most of us assumed was on the way after they won the title last year seems to have evaporated this season, especially when the Lakers take their show on the road.

Being taken down by a (Chris Paul-led) Hornets team that has been out of playoff contention since Christmas does not inspire championship confidence this close to the playoffs.

The Lakers’ 22-15 road record isn’t anything to dismiss. It’s the teams they’ve lost to that have most of us raising eyebrows. Since Christmas the Lakers have dropped games in Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio, Cleveland, Toronto, Orlando, Miami, Charlotte, Dallas, Memphis, Oklahoma City and now New Orleans.

Only the Cavaliers and Magic could be considered equals.

And Bryant made that clear to the Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times after their latest road failure:

“Bryant obviously didn’t like what he saw unfolding in front of him. He had 31 points and Pau Gasol had 26 points and 22 rebounds, but there was almost nothing else to appease the Lakers’ superstar, in case the brief postgame transcript didn’t prove the point.

What’s happening out there in games such as this one and last Friday in Oklahoma City?

“Just didn’t play well,” Bryant said.

He seemed upset at the end. What was going through his mind?

“Just didn’t play well,” he repeated.

How quickly can the Lakers turn it around with the playoffs starting in fewer than three weeks?

“We don’t have a choice,” he said.

Is he frustrated? Disappointed? He answered no to both.

What needed to be done Monday to get a victory?

“Had to play better,” Bryant said.

On offense or defense?

“A combination of all.”

Why so few words?

“For my own good,” he said.

He was asked whether he would provide more insight Tuesday and walked away from a semicircle of reporters.

In the final minute of the game, Bryant was called for a foul on Paul in the backcourt and yelled at referee Mark Lindsay. A timeout was called with 38.1 seconds to play, which is when Bryant punched the chair as he approached the Lakers’ bench. After the game, he briefly hugged Paul and walked directly to the locker room.

“Nobody likes to lose,” Gasol said. “He’s our leader, he’s our main guy and we hate losing. I’m sure that’s part of his frustration, that’s where it’s coming from.”

They’ll get a chance to fix whatever ails them Wednesday night just blocks from the hideout here when they invade Philips Arena to face the Hawks.

We will be there to see for ourselves if hey can right their wrongs on the road.

More news, notes, quotes and an opinion or two to get you warmed up for The Jump (today at 1 p.m. ET on NBA.com and later at 5 p.m. ET on NBA TV):

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HOW GOOD CAN THESE MAVERICKS BE?

Jean-Jacques Taylor of the Dallas Morning News: “Few big games exist in the monotony known as the NBA’s regular season. But the Mavs’ game against Denver on Monday qualified as one. The Nuggets, who eliminated the Mavs in five games during the playoffs last year, entered the game trailing Dallas by a half-game for the second seed in the Western Conference. No more. The revamped Mavs delivered a butt-kicking to Denver as they should have, 109-93, and claimed the season series in the process, which means they own any tiebreakers. These teams don’t like each other, in part because Denver tries to punk the Mavs at every opportunity. The ink-stained wretches – the Nuggets must have more collective tattoos than any other NBA team – love to bully and intimidate their opponents. They didn’t get a chance to do it in this game because the Mavs seized control in the first quarter and led by as many as 17 in the third quarter. The Nuggets made a run as NBA teams do, closing within three, but the Mavericks held on until they found their offensive flow again. Actually, they let Dirk Nowitzki take over. Nowitzki made a season-high four 3-pointers and finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and – get this – 10 assists for his second career triple-double. We shouldn’t be surprised about the blowout. Not really. After all, the Nuggets don’t have coach George Karl, who’s taking an extended leave so he can fight cancer. And they’re without former Bryan Adams star Kenyon Martin, who gives Denver much of its nasty disposition in addition to being its best defensive player. Martin is out indefinitely with a balky knee. The Nuggets were also playing on the second day of a back-to-back, having played at Orlando on Sunday. Now do you understand why the Mavs should’ve whipped Denver? Psychologically, a loss would’ve been crippling. Still, more important than the win was the way the Mavs won. Last season, the Mavs didn’t have the length, athleticism or attitude to beat Denver. That’s all changed with the addition of Shawn Marion and the Josh Howard trade. Marion scored 21 points and harassed Carmelo Anthony into a sub-par night with just 10 points on 3-of-16 shooting. Marion’s athleticism also allows him to get easy buckets. “The story of the game was Shawn’s defense on Carmelo,” Rick Carlisle said. “He accepted the challenge.”

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JAZZ BUST UP KNICKS, TAKE LEAD IN NORTHWEST

Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune: “With a victory that was equally entertaining and disturbing, the Jazz took over the Northwest Division lead, improved their draft status and moved up in the Western Conference playoff standings Monday night. That’s nice, but nothing about this 103-98 win over the New York Knicks at EnergySolutions Arena was as easy as it should have been. What passed as an achievement was mostly a case of finding the finish line and avoiding a devastating loss at this point of the proceedings. “We just stuck with it, man,” said Jazz forward Carlos Boozer, hardly sounding dissatisfied. Winning did beat the alternative, anyway. That’s especially true considering how every New York loss will help the Jazz in June, when they exercise the Knicks’ first-round draft pick (currently in the top eight). There was some mixture of emotions among Jazz followers recently when New York knocked off Dallas and Denver, aiding the Jazz in the standings but lowering them in the draft order. No such dilemma existed Monday, when Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni knew the Jazz had multiple incentives in play. Before the game, D’Antoni labeled the situation “kind of weird.” And then a bizarre contest unfolded, with the Jazz barely spared from having to answer how they could lose after making 19 of their first 22 shots. Among the oddities: The Jazz scored 44 first-quarter points. They made their first seven three-point attempts, then missed the next seven, before Mehmet Okur’s shot launched a 10-2 run midway through the fourth quarter. Kyle Korver went 1-for-9, all on two-point attempts, while not jeopardizing his shot at an NBA record for three-point percentage. Just for practice, apparently, the Jazz played a Frank Layden Bear mascot video skit with the theme of “Never quit” – when they led by five points with 8.2 seconds left. Well, Layden was a Knicks consultant after spending 20 years with the Jazz.”

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RAPTORS WON’T GO AWAY

Eric Koreen of the National Post: “Apparently, there is no figuring out these Toronto Raptors. Losers of 13 of 17 games prior to last night, the Raptors have rightfully been labelled soft. And with the team’s well-paid off-season acquisition, Hedo Turkoglu, butting heads with the club over his conduct and work ethic, the Raptors were given another reason to fold. And yet, they defeated the Charlotte Bobcats 103-101 last night at Time Warner Cable Arena on the second night of a back-to-back set of games. So, yeah: who knows? “I told you,” swingman Antoine Wright bellowed, his ankles in ice water after the game. It is true, kind of. Before the game, Wright told reporters to not bother talking to him if his team should lose. It was not quite a guarantee, but given how much Wright loves to talk, there was something on the line. And that was the case for Wright’s team, too. Despite the Turkoglu saga becoming a distraction — he did not play Sunday against the Heat after being spotted out late Friday night in Toronto despite being ruled out of action because of a stomach virus–the Raptors have now played three solid games in a row. All the talk was about how the Raptors, now a full game up on ninth-place Chicago, were heading for a missed playoff spot. But if not for a pair of poor fourth quarters against Denver and Miami, the talk around this team could be very different right now. Fourth quarters, of course, count. A lot. But still, for the majority of the last three games, the Raptors have been a tougher team than their reputation assumes. Finally, despite an ugly final few minutes to the game, they got a reward for that work. “In the huddle, we didn’t hang our heads,” guard Jarrett Jack said. “Everybody was into it. The guys on the bench, everybody. We were just saying, ‘Stay together.’ This is the time where we really have got to show that team unity, that camaraderie we have been building all season. This is the time where it counts the most.”

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DID MAGIC MAKE THE RIGHT CALL ON TURKOGLU?

Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel: “Is Hedo Turkoglu the biggest free-agent bust in the NBA this season? And has Turk become a jerk? They are certainly starting to think so in Toronto, where former Magic player Hedo Turkoglu signed a $53 million contract during the offseason and has been a colossal flop. You know what means? Time once again to bow down before a statue of Orlando general manager Otis Smith and start reciting the mantra of Magic fans: “In Otis we trust! In Otis we trust! In Otis we trust!” All that consternation about Smith letting Turkoglu go during the offseason and bringing in Vince Carter seems silly now, doesn’t it? In case you haven’t heard, Turkoglu has been benched in Toronto and is being castigated by fans and management. It started late last week when he said he had a stomach virus and was too sick to practice or play in Toronto’s devastating loss to the Denver Nuggets. After the game, Turkoglu was seen out on the town by fans in Toronto. The Raptors, in the midst of a push to make the playoffs, benched Turkoglu for the ensuing loss to the Miami Heat Sunday night. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the Toronto Globe and Mail after the Heat game: “Turkoglu was acquired in the off-season to provide the Raptors with a perimeter creator in crunch time, but he was benched — a new low point in a disappointing season for the $53-million (U.S.) off-season free-agent signing. ”Dressed for action after missing half of one game, all of another and two practices with a stomach virus, Turkoglu was never summoned by head coach Jay Triano. “I told them I want to play,” Turkoglu said before the game. He declined the opportunity to comment afterward, and Triano shed no light on the situation. Asked if he was sitting out for health or discipline reasons, Triano said only: “Both.” Turkoglu returned to the floor and hit a key 3-pointer in Monday’s victory over the Bobcats, but he was a sub and not a starter. Which is not really all that surprising when you look at his stats for the season. Turkoglu is averaging just 11.8 points and has one of the worst shooting percentages (.410) on the  entire roster. It’s looking more and more like the Raptors made a serious mistake by signing Turkoglu to a longterm deal. It’s looking more and more like the Magic made prudent decision by not signing Turkoglu to a longterm deal.”

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NUGGETS SINKING

Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post: “Sometimes, what’s being attained isn’t always obvious. Monday night at American Airlines Arena felt that way. A playoff tiebreaker was at stake, and the Mavericks collected it and gained distance in the race for the No. 2 spot in the West with a 109-93 win over the Nuggets, who suddenly find themselves in the fifth spot but are trying to keep a brave face in the wake of a 1-4 road trip. “It was a tough trip for us as far as games go,” Carmelo Anthony said. “But we’re OK. There’s nothing to panic about. We’ll be all right. I know what type of team we have. I know what type of guys we have. We’re a good team.” Getting a tiebreaker wasn’t the whole story. Not even close. There were revenge undertones in the arena. The Mavs were a little more spirited, the crowd a little more hostile, the entire atmosphere a little more electric. And maybe it should have been. The Nuggets haven’t played in this building since they nearly eliminated the Mavs here in last season’s playoffs. Then, they took Dallas down in five games in such a physical, dominating fashion that it had the Mavs’ organization ready to make significant changes to become a contender again. And it did just that. Those new faces — Shawn Marion, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood chief among them — proved how powerful the Mavericks have become. Defensively, Marion handcuffed Anthony, holding him to just 10 points on 3-of-16 shooting. He left the game with 2:42 left with blurriness in his right eye, which he said got gradually worse after he was poked in the first quarter. “I guess it’ll be all right by the next game,” Anthony said. Coach Rick Carlisle was asked if the Mavericks had stopping Carmelo in mind when they acquired Marion last summer. “It certainly is one of the good reasons to pursue Shawn, for sure,” Carlisle said. “Athleticism, length, experience, defensive ability. Let’s not forget the guy had 21 points.”

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ANTHONY AT CENTER OF HEAT SURGE

Michael Wallace of the Miami Herald: “Think you know the hottest player on the Heat’s roster amid Miami’s most productive stretch of the season? Think again. Dwyane Wade? Nope. Despite an impressive string of performances that has seen him rack up points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, Wade plays second fiddle. Udonis Haslem? Guess again. Even with tying his career high of 18 rebounds Friday in Milwaukee and scoring 23 points Sunday against Toronto, Haslem doesn’t quite stack up, either. When it comes to basketball perfection, only one Heat player can lay claim to that distinction over the past two games: Joel Anthony. “Absolutely,” coach Erik Spoelstra quickly responded when asked if he has noticed the offensive exploits of the defensive-minded Anthony. “This probably shows his versatility as much as anything.” Anthony made all eight of his field goal attempts and all five of his free throws over the weekend in wins against Toronto and Milwaukee. Whereas the Heat has come to expect a solid defensive presence from Anthony, the hot streak on offense has been a pleasant surprise from the third-year post player. Anthony, 6-9 shot-blocker, made his 11th start of the season Sunday when he filled in for injured center Jermaine O’Neal. It turned out to be one of Anthony’s most complete efforts of his career. In addition to making all six of his shots for a career-high 13 points, Anthony hounded All-Star Chris Bosh into an 8-of-20 outing from the field. The Heat rallied from a 17-point deficit to complete its biggest comeback of the season in the 97-94 victory. It was another breakthrough for Anthony. He has gone from receiving harsh glares from teammates for his struggles to catch the ball to becoming a far more reliable finisher in the lane. “I’ve been plugging away,” said Anthony, averaging 2.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 15.7 minutes. “I’m keeping myself ready for whenever I have to help my team by doing more than I’ve been originally asked.”

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DURANT ON THE VERGE OF SUPERSTARDOM OR ALREADY THERE?

Stephen A. Smith of the Philadelphia Inquirer: “He’s skinny. That’s the thing that jumps out at you first: this frail frame in a 6-foot-9 body, inviting elbows and forearms. Then you see Kevin Durant play. Suddenly, the purity of his game comes shining through. It’s a sweet-looking jump shot one minute, silky moves to the basket the next, ultimately convincing basketball aficionados that the next superstar is blossoming before our very eyes. If LeBron James isn’t the primary topic of discussion for MVP honors in the NBA this season, then there’s Durant. And if another player is even considered, commissioner David Stern needs to demand an investigation. At age 21, Durant is the league’s second-leading scorer (29.6 points per game) behind King James. He has scored 30 or more points 39 times this season, which is the most in the NBA. His squad, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is the youngest team in the league (averaging under age 25), boasting a 44-28 record, already in the thick of a playoff hunt in the Western Conference. One should wonder why they even have to play the moribund Sixers tonight at the Wachovia Center. In the interest of fairness, if nothing else. “I knew that he was capable of [a season like this] because of the work that he puts in every day,” said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, minutes before his Thunder flew to Philadelphia yesterday. “[Durant’s] work is top-notch. All summer long he worked on his game. He did everything we asked, and then more. His practice habits are all about winning basketball. His shooting habits are incredible. I’ve never seen a guy work so hard with shooting drills in my life. Of course, he has the skills. But the work ethic is what gets him over the hump to the level he’s on.” Congratulations to Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks, the Sixers’ former coach, who Brooks says is one of the guys who has helped Durant excel. Scott couldn’t stop praising Cheeks, mainly for the relationships his aide has cultivated with Durant and Oklahoma City’s young players. But, truth be told, you don’t teach the sort of skills the former University of Texas star possesses. You can’t coach that wingspan. Neither Scott nor Cheeks can teach someone as lanky as Durant how to jump, dribble, and shoot the way he does. Since Christmas Day, Durant has averaged a league-high 30.8 points, shooting 48 percent from the field and leading the Thunder to a 20-7 record in that span. Along the way, Durant has been mentioned in the same breath as Dirk Nowitzki one minute, George “Iceman” Gervin the next. “About the only thing I have not seen him do is finger roll,” Gervin, famous for the finger roll and being a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, told me weeks ago. “I can honestly say I’ve never felt like anyone’s game emulated mine until this kid Durant came along. He’s a special, special dude.”

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