When the Los Angeles Lakers lost four of their first five games this season -- their worst start in 12 years -- a lot of fingers were pointed at Mike Dunleavy.
After winning 63 games the previous season and five NBA titles the previous decade, the Lakers were not accustomed to such problems.
Their first-year coach was the logical excuse but not the right excuse.
"We had a rough start, but it was just an adjustment period," Dunleavy said before a recent game. "Everyone was getting used to each other. We weren't totally ready for the start of the season. We struggled, no question, but we knew the things we had to improve on. It just took time."
Although the Lakers started at the bottom of the division, they are working their way toward the top. They passed Phoenix for second place during the weekend and stand at 27-11 after last night's 116-96 victory over Orlando.
While the league's focus has been on Portland, Boston and Milwaukee through the first part of the season, the Lakers expect to be ready come playoff time.
"People are more comfortable with what we're doing," Dunleavy said, "but there certainly are still things we need to improve on."
The adjustment this season was more than just Dunleavy's replacing Pat Riley as coach. The Lakers signed free-agent forward Sam Perkins. They traded for guard Terry Teagle.
Opponents averaged better than 50 percent shooting for the first two weeks of the season against the Lakers. They are now averaging 46 percent. The Lakers are one of just two NBA teams allowing an average of fewer than 100 points per game (99.9). The other is Detroit, which has won back-to-back titles.
"We've turned up the defense," Dunleavy said. "And when that happens, everything else works a little bit better."
The Lakers have begun using Perkins in the starting lineup and are using longtime starter A.C. Green in the sixth-man role. Although Teagle has not produced as expected, others have stepped forward.
Vlade Divac, who struggled early after reporting to camp a little out of shape, has made significant strides.
Games like Friday's against Seattle, when Divac had 20 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots, are becoming more common.
Last week Divac had 22 points, 11 rebounds and two blocked shots against Houston, then 19 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks against Charlotte. He is giving them a force in the middle, which is something they need to be successful by Lakers standards.