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Not everything's perfect in Laker land

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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

A funny thing happened on the way to the coronation . . .

The way the Lakers began the season — with a fortified bench, a rhythmic offense and a focus that was as sharp as Matt Barnes’ elbows — there were only two real concerns: when would center Andrew Bynum make his debut and which direction would the parade route go?

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But a month into the season, signs are surfacing that it might not be so smooth a ride for the Lakers. Sunday night’s 95-92 loss to the Pacers, which ended when Kobe Bryant’s desperation 3-pointer was an air ball, raised a host of questions.

* How many minutes can Pau Gasol, who played 45 minutes for the second consecutive game, be expected to play before he starts to melt like a Dali clock?

* When will 36-year-old Derek Fisher, who is 3 for his past 21, announce that his jump shot has retired?

* How will Phil Jackson handle the simmering tension between himself and Ron Artest — with a hug, or with a further diminishing of Artest’s minutes?

Suddenly, after two consecutive losses in which their offense sputtered and the defense puttered, there is a bigger-picture question about the Lakers: How good are they really?

Despite their 13-4 record, which is still the second-best in the NBA behind San Antonio, they have beaten one team with a winning record. Even with Bryant’s 41 points, they could not beat Indiana.

“We started out well, beat some bum teams and now we’ve got to dig deeper to find ourselves,” Artest said.

Jackson said recently that this is the most low-maintenance team he has ever coached. There is no Dennis Rodman to babysit, no Shaq-Kobe feud, and until lately, very little drama. But Jackson is clearly frustrated with Artest and Bynum, who might not be ready to play until Christmas.

Artest played 26 minutes, slightly under his average of 27:10 — the lowest of his 12-year career and 6.5 minutes less than he averaged last season. His points, rebounds and assists are also at career-low levels.

But what seems to concern Jackson most is his late-game decisions. In Friday’s loss to Utah, Artest passed up a 3-pointer only to dribble into the lane and miss a fadeaway jumper. Against Indiana, Artest grabbed the rebound of Bryant’s missed 3-pointer with nine seconds left, then dribbled out to the arc. He then passed to Lamar Odom in the lane, and Odom dribbled out to the 3-point line where he passed to Bryant whose 29-footer at the buzzer was not close.

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When the Lakers walked off the court at the end of the game, Jackson pulled Artest aside and talked to him.

“He told me I should have called timeout when we got the offensive rebound,” Artest said. “Kobe wanted the ball. Kobe was going to hit a three. When I saw Kobe, I was going to give it to him. I asked (Jackson), could everybody else on the court call timeout since I had the ball? And he said yes.”

Artest paused and then smiled.

“He forgot to address it with everybody,” he said. “But that’s OK.”

Jackson declined to detail what he said to Artest, preferring to keep it private. Artest said he was comfortable with his role, but noted that his feelings were irrelevant.

“I listen and I take in the good, what can help me. But then I’ve also got to be like I made it this far for a reason,” said Artest, whose 3-pointer brought the Lakers within 89-86 and got the crowd on its feet. “How do I not be selfish but at the same time listen? I’m sure he didn’t want me to take that last three tonight. It’s all about playing and trying to figure out a way. We’ll be OK.”

Artest was not Jackson’s only frustration. Before the game, he expressed disappointment that Bynum’s absence — and the knee injury to backup Theo Ratliff — was beginning to take a toll on Gasol.

“That’s a real problem,” Jackson said. “We put all our eggs in a basket of Andrew coming back and hoped he’d be back by this time, by Nov. 15, by Thanksgiving time, by [next month’s East Coast] road trip, etc.”

Bynum said Saturday that he expects to be able to play in three weeks. In the meantime, Gasol — who was playing like an MVP candidate — is playing as if he’s been taxed by playing 39 minutes per night. He made his first three shots and then went 2 for 12 the rest of the way, and for the second consecutive game, he did not make a basket in the fourth quarter.

“He plays so many minutes that Coach [Jim O’Brien] said he wanted me to get up and down the court to put pressure on him,” said Indiana center Roy Hibbert, who had 24 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. “Obviously, they don’t have Andrew back. So Pau has to carry a large load.”

Jackson was asked if there were a cure for Gasol’s circumstance.

“Rest,” Jackson deadpanned.

It will not get much easier this week. Gasol will have to play against his brother, Marc, on Tuesday in Memphis, and then Wednesday against the Rockets, who send two physical players — Chuck Hayes and Brad Miller — at him.

As they head on the road, they will have to play with more energy than they showed Sunday night — at least until the third quarter, when they found themselves behind by 15 points.

Jackson called their performance against the Pacers lethargic.

“I always give them a rap about Sunday being one of our worst days to play for whatever reason,” Jackson said. “But they didn’t bite. It’s just one of those things, one of those enigmas, playing on Sunday we can’t get going quickly.”

There might be plenty of teams willing to trade problems with the Lakers. But for the first time this season, the Lakers at least showed that they have some of their own.

Tagged: Rockets, Pacers, Lakers, Metta World Peace, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum

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