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Haven’t seen this photo in a while. I actually stumbled upon it a few seconds ago. It was taken a few days after the Lakers won the 2009 NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant’s first Shaq-less title (taking us back to this).  It just made me wonder about this year, and the Lakers’ chance of a third straight title.

So, it looked kind of hopeless before the All-Star right? The Lakers were losing left and right, including at home, entering the All-Star break with three straight defeats. Since Kobe Bryant ballhogged his way to All-Star MVPiness, the Lakers have lost one game. A 94-88 defeat in Miami against the Heat who seem to have the Lakers number this season. Two games, but still. That Christmas loss to the Heat was during a Lakers slump and the Heat’s best period. This time? It got the Heat out of there slump but was merely a bump in the road for the Lakers.

They’ve won some big games during the last month or so – Portland on the road (Kobe with 37), Thunder on the road, Huge 99-83 road win over the Spurs and a 96-91 win over the Mavs.

Kobe himself has been on a tear lately, scoring 109 points in the last three games – 42 against the Suns, 37 on the Clippers and 30 against the Hornets. Still, he’s been having too many ups and downs, making his reliance on his co-stars more vital than the previous two title years. Like in November, his shooting is around the 42% from the field in comparison to his seasonal 45%, which is pretty much his career stat. Despite being off quite a few nights (below 40% from the field four times this month), Kobe Bryant doesn’t stop shooting – 21.7 FG attempts this month.

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Does he need rest? Should the Lakers rest him, in terms of limiting his minutes, not completely benching him, till the season ends? At 32, with nearly 1300 games behind him, the legs are getting tired. The Lakers have that swagger back, that confidence they can win on the road. I don’t think they’re too afraid of Dallas in a series. Heck, I don’t believe anyone is. Still, they are battling for the number 2 spot and even a tiny chance of the number one West spot if the Spurs keep sliding (Big Thursday night btw – Celtics at San Antonio and Lakers play the Mavs).

There’s no need to worry about ruining the rotation or the way the Lakers have been clicking lately. If there’s a team that knows how to switch it on and off when the playoffs arrive, it’s the Lakers. But they don’t need to find the switch this time. They’re the hottest team in the league right now, finally playing with intensity, especially on defense, for a long stretch, likely to carry on. Be it Memphis-Hornets-Nuggets or the Blazers, the Lakers will deal with that round easily. I don’t think they’re worried about anyone but the Spurs.

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The importance of Gasol, Bynum, Artest and Odom is even greater this season. When the games get slower, tougher, more physical in the playoffs, it’s up to them again to each come up with a big play when we’re deep in the post-season. Being counted out of the title talk for a while seems to have strengthened them. Lack of media interest usually helps a team, especially after a brutal period like the Lakers withstood. The defending champs are back, and although my gut tells me the title is going to the East this year, I don’t think there’s anyone, as of now, likely to stop Kobe Bryant and the Lakers from making their fourth straight NBA finals and a shot at a 17th NBA title.