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Palace intrigue for the reigning champs

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Billy Witz

Billy Witz has contributed to The New York Times and covered a multitude of sporting events. A Tulane University grad, Witz has won Associated Press Sports Editor awards for investigative reporting, feature writing and game stories. He covered the Lakers' every move last season for FOX Sports West.

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LOS ANGELES

Screwing up a game is one thing. How about screwing up a team?

The Lakers got their act together on the court, renewing their effort on defense and throttling a mediocre team instead of the other way around for a change with a 108-83 victory over the Pistons on Tuesday.

Off the court, it was another story. Actually, many of them.

Yahoo reported early Tuesday afternoon that Ron Artest and Phil Jackson became engaged in a loud confrontation after a recent practice because Artest was upset over Jackson’s sometimes public criticism.

Not long after, ESPN.com reported that Pau Gasol missed the shoot-around before Sunday’s loss to Memphis. Two other Lakers were late because, like Gasol, they said their iPhone alarms malfunctioned.

Then there was Mark Cuban chirping in from Dallas, dismissing Jackson as Jeanie Buss’ boy-toy.

“Maybe Mark did it to make me giggle,” said Jeanie, daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss. “Because I am Madonna now and Phil’s my boyfriend.”

And right in the middle of it all is Kobe Bryant.

As if losing four of six, and getting blown out at home by the likes of milquetoasts Milwaukee and Memphis was not enough to send Lakers fans into fits of panic, now they learned that Artest was about to go off the reservation, that Gasol didn’t just need an alarm clock for game time, and that revelations about a foot fetish are just around the corner.

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On the other hand, maybe this is just what the Lakers needed — getting screwed up. Or, as Jackson might clarify, cranked up.

Gasol scored 21 points — his highest total in nearly three weeks — on 7 of 11 shots, and was a focal point of the offense. Artest played with increased vigor on defense, and was an active participant on offense with a pair of 3-pointers and four assists.

Nothing like a little drama to help the cause.

“It’s L.A. That [stuff] always happens for some reason,” Bryant said. “It depends on how we use it. Before the game, I made sure I told the guys, right before we went on the court, ‘Listen to how everybody’s talking about you. You know what I mean? Embrace this, it’s L.A. It comes with the territory of being back-to-back champs. You have to deal with it. You have to embrace it. You have to use it as fuel and motivation because the thing that matters the most are the people that are in this huddle right here, not what’s going on outside.’ If we stay focused on that, we’ll be fine.”

Two nights earlier, after being booed off the court against Milwaukee, Bryant beseeched reporters to rip the team, saying it would create some constructive tension.

But what if members of the local media didn’t stir with a big enough spoon?

The Yahoo story was written by NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, who is close enough with Bryant that they went to dinner in Minneapolis earlier this season. And ESPN’s Ric Bucher, who wrote the Gasol story, was at one time anyway Kobe’s go-to guy — at least back when he wanted out of Los Angeles.

A day earlier, Bryant said some Lakers were too sensitive to Jackson’s public needling, and mentioned two players by name — Gasol and Artest.

So, did Kobe, who has been known to take matters into his own hands, plant the stories?

“No,” Bryant said with a laugh, shaking his head as he walked out of the locker room.

“I like that you think I’m that smart, but that’s some next level (expletive),” Bryant said. “Do I look like Phil?”

Bryant was not the only one tossing zingers at Jackson. Cuban, the Mavericks’ owner, was not pleased that Jackson had an opinion recently that Dallas would be hindered by the loss of Caron Butler, who may miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery.

“I love that Jeanie Buss’ boy-toy had something to say about us,” Cuban told reporters in Dallas. “I don’t know if it was his thought or Jeanie’s thought, but it’s nice to know that she lets him speak in public about other teams.”

As for being a boy-toy?

“I love it,” Jackson said. “I consider myself an old man, so to hear that I’m a boy-toy? That’s terrific.”

All the stories were shrugged off by most everyone in the Lakers’ locker room, including Gasol — who said he was only late for the shoot-around, but did not miss it. The exception was in the corner where Artest sits.

He felt a sense of betrayal.

After reporters left Artest’s locker when the locker room closed to the media before the game, Artest had one last request: Put tears around his quotes.

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“I’ve come too far, I worked too hard on pushing ego aside, I’ve worked too hard for something like that to come out,” said Artest, who was once a pariah after his role in the infamous melee in Detroit. “If anything, my image is very, very important to me — whatever I have left — and I’ve worked really hard on maintaining it. That hurts. Nothing really hurts — but that hurts for something like that to come out because I totally don’t want any confrontation. I want everything to be really, really positive.”

Artest chose his words carefully. He would not address the confrontation, he said, because he did not talk with Jackson since the story came online. But Jackson described it as largely accurate, except that the confrontation was not loud.

“It was a man-to-man confrontation,” Jackson said of the incident which took place more than a week ago. “It was, obviously, out of character for both that to happen at practice and for Ron. It was direct, but it wasn’t loud.”

Jackson said Artest later apologized, unsolicited, to him and to the team, and added that he would alter the way he interacts with Artest, perhaps using less sarcasm and would criticize him only if an incident happens during the course of a game that he has to address.

The Lakers’ practices are always closed to reporters and Jackson considers it a sanctuary where for an hour or two, he has his team’s undivided attention. In the Shaq Era, stories like this were almost a daily occurrence, but they have been rare since the franchise’s fortunes turned with the acquisition of Gasol.

Jackson said that, no, it did not bother him that private matters became public, but then he seemed to indicate that it did.

“I’m used to living with it,” Jackson said. “We have a very exposed existence as a basketball team now. The NBA doesn’t keep secrets. They impose us to open the doors and let you guys in. I think they want the gossip in the news. We go to places like the soccer teams, they’re totally befuddled that we have the open doors that we have as far as reporters go. It’s like we have to manufacture news. We like to have our business behind closed doors, but as it is we have to live with it.”

Tagged: Lakers, Metta World Peace, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol

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