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.”