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Lakers enter crucial stage

CLEVELAND, January 21 – The Los Angeles Lakers launch a demanding eight-game road trip on Thursday with a grudge match against the Cleveland Cavaliers.Kobe Bryant and the Lakers will be trying to erase the memory of an embarrassing 102-87 home loss to the Cavs on Christmas Day.

They’ll also be trying to get off to a quick start on a tough 13-day trip that includes three sets of back-to-back games, a meeting not only with the Cavaliers – the Eastern Conference leaders – but also with the Boston Celtics, and a detour to the White House.

"That Christmas game was tough, and then that whole day wasn’t too good for me, anyway," said Lakers forward Ron Artest, who suffered a concussion in a fall at home hours after the loss to the Cavaliers. "We feel like we’re a better team now than when we played them before."

Added center Pau Gasol: "We didn’t like that Christmas game.

"It was very disappointing on our part. We’ve got to try to get that ballgame when we play them again.

"We need to do that," Gasol said. "You never want a team to get the confidence they can beat you, especially when it’s somebody you might see down the road in the playoffs."

And the potential playoff picture will be the big motivating force as the Lakers hit the road.

They own the league’s best record, 32-9, but their 15 road games are 10 fewer than Cleveland’s.

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While the Lakers have opened a five-game lead over Dallas in the Western Conference, they are only 9-6 on the road.

At a similar point last season, they turned in a perfect 6-0 road trip to kick-start a campaign that ended with a 15th NBA title.

"I think it’ll tell us where we’re at," Artest said. "We feel like we can come out perfect. I don’t think anybody will doubt us even though we haven’t been out on the road yet."

But Lakers coach Phil Jackson wants his team to keep a sense of perspective.

"Last year’s road trip jump-started our season," Jackson said. "I’m setting a low bar for this team, though. We don’t need to put too much emphasis on the entire trip as a whole. We just need to play good, solid games and avoid injuries, starting in Cleveland.

"We don’t assign a whole lot extra importance to that game, even though it is an interesting game."

In addition to matching up Bryant and Cleveland superstar LeBron James, the contest in Cleveland sees the Lakers again taking on former Los Angeles star Shaquille O’Neal.

O’Neal made his presence felt on both ends Tuesday in a victory over Toronto.

"He’s a guy from the old school," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said of O’Neal. "He’s not going to give up anything easy around the basket."

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O’Neal was also a key contributer on offense, coming up with two assists and a dunk in a 9-2 scoring run that put the game out of reach.

"It is great to have that luxury," James said. "Shaq is an unselfish guy and it is great to have that interior presence."

After Cleveland, the Lakers will visit New York, Toronto, Washington, Indiana, Philadelphia, Boston and Memphis.

Jackson said the key to a successful trip would be consistency on the court – and probably plenty of patience off it.

"Traveling in the wintertime, you never know what’s going to happen – delayed flights or the plane has to be de-iced and you don’t get in until four in the morning," Jackson said. "Those are always things that are problematic on these types of trips."

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