Lakers struggling to escape late-season funk

The euphoria from Kobe Bryant’s latest game-winning shot didn’t

last much longer than it took for the celebratory streamers to fall

from the Staples Center roof onto the Toronto Raptors’ heads.

Despite their 47-18 record and their perch atop the Western

Conference standings, Bryant and his teammates say the Los Angeles

Lakers are in their worst funk of the season. If they constantly

must rely on Bryant’s brilliance to bail them out at the buzzer, as

he has done roughly twice a month this season, the superstar

realizes their NBA title defense is likely to be gut-wrenching –

and short.

“This thing tonight was garbage,” Bryant said Tuesday night

after the Lakers beat Toronto 109-107 on Bryant’s 17-foot fallaway

jumper with 1.9 seconds left.

Bryant was referring to the Lakers’ efforts to correct the bad

habits they evinced during a winless road trip last week, resulting

in their first three-game losing streak in two years. But no Lakers

player has been terribly happy with any part of their play over the

past three weeks, dating back before their one-point loss to Boston

on Feb. 18.

Coach Phil Jackson says they’re overthinking on offense, and

Bryant is questioning their defensive effort. Lamar Odom is angry

that the pedestrian likes of Orlando’s Matt Barnes and several

Raptors have been cocky enough to trash-talk the champs.

“It’s giving these teams a quiet confidence where they think

they can beat us,” said Odom, visibly furious after the narrow

escape against Toronto. “I don’t expect that. We’ve got to take it

to teams. (They’re) way too confident against us.”

After ending their skid against the Raptors despite getting

outplayed for most of the first three quarters, the Lakers are

headed down the home stretch of the regular season, starting

another three-game road trip Friday in Phoenix. They’ll play 11 of

their last 17 on the road, with every game a marquee event for

opponents attempting to prove themselves for a playoff push.

The Lakers’ purple road jersey always has a metaphorical target

on its back. But the fast-starting, hard-finishing club that led

the NBA standings for much of the season before falling behind

Cleveland is having trouble playing with the consistency necessary

to thrive under all that scrutiny.

“We need to play harder and execute a little better,” said

forward Ron Artest, who has scored more than 15 points just once in

the last month. “Overall, we are not playing great. We’re trying,

and we continue to try. We had some awesome plays at the end

(against Toronto), and we just have to make plays like that

throughout the entire game.”

Bryant has hit six or seven game-winning shots this season,

depending on who’s counting, including a preposterous banked-in

3-pointer to beat Miami in December. He has also missed a few,

including a shot in Toronto and another last Sunday in Orlando,

where the Lakers ended their trip with a loss in an NBA finals

rematch.

When Bryant connects, it’s the only memory of the game for most

fans – yet Bryant knows his buzzer-beaters only mask problems

because the Lakers didn’t play terribly well in the previous 47

minutes.

“We scored a lot of points tonight, (but) that’s not going to

win championships,” Bryant said after beating Toronto. “You’ve

got to stop people.”

Bryant is particularly disappointed by the Lakers’ defense,

which has allowed the last five opponents to score at least 96

points. Bryant committed two offensive fouls and generally played

with a scowl during the first half against Toronto, clearly

disappointed the Lakers hadn’t built on their improved defensive

effort last Sunday – one day after he yelled at his teammates

during a meeting.

“Our defense in Orlando was much better,” Bryant said. “The

effort we had in Orlando will make it tough for teams to beat us

four times in a series.”

Jackson has been similarly critical of his team, though not with

Bryant’s outspokenness. Jackson noted five players at Monday’s

practice had hand injuries, including Bryant’s broken finger,

affecting their flow on offense.

“That leads to fumbles, turnovers and bad shots,” Jackson

said. “Everybody is guilty of not moving the ball, though.”

Until last weekend, Los Angeles had never lost three straight

since All-Star big man Pau Gasol arrived and helped them to

consecutive Western Conference titles, culminating in last year’s

championship.

Gasol seems less upset about the Lakers’ slump than many of his

teammates, noting their road-heavy schedule in the second half of

the season after playing a home-loaded early-season schedule.

“So far, we’ve been struggling,” said Gasol, who contributed

little in the second half against Toronto. “We’ve been playing

well in stretches, but not consistently, and we’ve got to figure

that out. We couldn’t really find the energy for a while. Once we

do, we’ll be back on track.”