After the upstart Lakers knocked off the world champion Houston Rockets recently in Los Angeles, the Golden State Warriors came to town. Apparently, an unnamed Warrior was unimpressed by the fact L.A. had beaten a Rockets team without Otis Thorpe and with a gimpy Hakeem Olajuwon.
"I heard one (Warrior) say it was a fluke we beat Houston," Laker point guard Nick Van Exel said. "People are expecting the wrong things from us. We're better than people think. Much better. That's fine. They'll still be saying it when we're in the playoffs."The anonymous Golden State player may have been a little more impressed after the Lakers - Utah's opponent tonight at the Delta Center - handed Golden State a 113-101 loss. But it's hard not to see that Warrior's point of view. Study the Lakers' roster, and this doesn't appear to be a team capable of winning seven of their last eight (that's before losing to the Clippers 109-84 Friday night in L.A.) and of posting the second-best road record in the NBA.
If you saw the preseason game between the Jazz and Lakers in Ogden, you'd be even less inclined to consider this team a contender. That night, the Lakers chucked the ball around with abandon in losing by 11 points. On the other hand, the Lakers showed some scrappiness, continually clawing back from double-digit deficits. And they enticed the Jazz to commit 29 turnovers, a talent they've continued to show in the regular season - they lead the league in opponent turnovers.
Del Harris is generally acknowledged as the reason the Lakers are better now than they were then. A veteran coach with 342 career NBA victories (and 347 defeats), Harris knew that in a town like L.A., he needed some quick success.
"In a major market they want rebuilding to be an event, not a process," he said, noting there is less pressure in places like Salt Lake City and Denver. "In a major city there are just too many other entertainment options, so if a game is not going to be good right now, they're going to go to a play, or the theater, or something else.
"Everybody wants their team to win and they want them to win pretty quickly."
A teacher-type with a professorial background, Harris came in determined to be firm with this youthful bunch. The average age is 25.9, and there are only two players on the Laker roster with more than five years of NBA experience - backup center Sam Bowie and backup point guard Sedale Threatt.
Anyway, Harris' attitude is that you are never too old to learn; it's an approach that took players by surprise. "But with the way we played last year, it's going to help," Van Exel told the Orange County Register. "We need it."
Van Exel had played for Harris before, at a pre-draft camp in Phoenix, and for some reason the experience left him less than excited about his new coach. Now he's a believer.
"He wants you to do something and he expects you to do it," the second-year point guard said. "If you don't do it, or do it half, then he's going to let you know about it. He keeps on drilling you. Last year we would get drilled and if we didn't do it, it would just end. Now if you don't do it, you're going to keep on doing it until you get it right."
So far, they are getting it more right than wrong.
GAME NOTES: Cedric Ceballos leads all starting small forwards in rebounding at 9.4 . . . The Lakers' record is all the more impressive considering they've played 10 of their first 16 (prior to Friday) on the road . . . Only Dallas is on pace to improve more than the Lakers, who won 33 games last season, and the Mavericks may be ready to do a fast fade.