By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - These are very strange times for Los Angeles Lakers fans, with many of them holding surprisingly low expectations for this season after becoming accustomed to their team repeatedly reaching the NBA Finals.
Sixteen NBA championship banners hang proudly from the rafters at the Lakers' Staples Center home, proof positive of the glittering success achieved by the franchise, but the chance of a 17th being added any time soon seems remote.
The ageing Lakers are now a team in transition and even their most ardent fan would probably view a playoff spot as the best that can be hoped for going into their 2013-14 campaign.
With 15-time All-Star shooting guard Kobe Bryant sidelined since mid-April with a torn left Achilles' tendon and still weeks away from returning to action, the men in purple and gold have made a stuttering 2-2 start to the new season.
Though they beat the mediocre Atlanta Hawks 105-103 at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, they made heavy weather of a game they led by 21 points early in the second quarter.
Kyle Korver poured in two late three-pointers to help the Hawks tie things up at 103-103 on a Paul Millsap jump shot with 35.3 seconds left before Pau Gasol spared Lakers blushes with consecutive free throws after a Millsap blocking foul.
Free throws, in fact, were a welcome lifeline for Los Angeles on the night as they made a stunning 20 of 24 while being outshot by their opponents, both from the field and from beyond the arc.
The official attendance was listed as a sellout of 18,997 but several seats were empty in the upper stands, further evidence that all is not well in the Lakers empire.
Hollywood actor Jack Nicholson and celebrated American record producer Lou Adler were conspicuous absentees from their regular courtside spots and the stadium was hushed as the Hawks made a strong surge in the final quarter.
"We've got a lot of stuff we've got to cure," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters. "For whatever reason, we go up (by) 15 (points) and we have great energy, then all of a sudden we start to get soft on defense, without a lot of energy.
"Then we start to get a little selfish and we stop thinking about moving the ball. Those are two things we have to cure."
Lakers backup guard Jordan Farmar preferred to dwell on what the team had done well in the first half when they built a lead of 62-49 on 53 percent shooting.
"We had good energy," said Farmar. "We played together and moved the ball, got stops defensively ... all the things we didn't do in the second half.
"Pau made some big plays at the end of the game and those are some of the things it takes sometimes to win games."
Unquestionably, Lakers fans are viewing this season much more realistically than they did for the 2012-13 campaign when expectations soared after the acquisitions of six-time All-Star Dwight Howard and twice former Most Valuable Player Steve Nash.
With Howard and Nash set to join Bryant, Gasol and Metta World Peace in a potent starting five, hopes of a 17th NBA Championship title gathered pace but all that soon evaporated as the Lakers struggled through injuries and patchy form.
In the absence of the injured Bryant, Los Angeles were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs and a disgruntled Howard opted to leave the team during the offseason and join the Houston Rockets.
"Last year was the most unhealthy season that I've been a part of," said Spanish forward Gasol, who has been the most reliable player so far this season for the Lakers.
"Until everybody's healthy, I'm just trying to establish myself and make sure we get through a pattern out there where everybody feels comfortable and I can be more productive.
"Hopefully we'll have a healthy season after we get Kobe back, whenever that happens, and see what happens with him all year long."
It could be a very long season, though, for the Lakers who are fervently hoping that 39-year-old point guard Nash can also stay healthy in an aging backcourt while 'backup' players such as Steve Blake, Farmar and Xavier Henry can shine.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)