Although the Lakers found their winning stroke on Friday, there's still plenty of work to do.
By AJ PEREZ FS West
WASHINGTON — Kobe Bryant wanted the Washington Generals.
The Los Angeles Lakers star guard got the Washington Wizards, a team with a marginally better record and possibly less depth at point guard than the Harlem Globetrotters' foil.
And still the Lakers' struggled to end their four-game skid before a late surge ensured a 102-96 victory at Verizon Center on Friday night.
"We are not there yet. We aren't even close to being a good team," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Can build on it? I hope so."
Blame the short bench, which again lacked starters Pau Gasol (knee tendinitis) and Steve Nash (injured left leg). Both could be back in a matter of a week or so if there are no setbacks.
Until then this is what you get with the highest payroll in the NBA: a small lineup that lacks the defensive awareness --- maybe even effort -- to maintain a lead even against a team like the 3-17 Wizards, who are still without standout point guard John Wall (knee).
The Lakers (10-14) had a nine-point lead in the first quarter and trailed by as many as nine in the second quarter, the sort of swings that made D'Antoni — who had knee replacement surgery not long before he accepted the Lakers job in the wake of Mike Brown's firing — jump out of his chair.
"I thought we got away from what we were doing," D'Antoni said. "We started thinking instead of playing. There were some times we didn't get back (on defense). You can't do that. I told them at halftime, we are not a good enough team where, for two minutes, we can rest on our laurels.'"
With a team already lacking two cogs and with Bryant battling back spasms, Lakers center Dwight Howard joked he didn't want his coach injured, too.
"For one, we want to make sure he didn't hurt his leg," said Howard. "He was very animated tonight, which is great. There are times when coaches have to show they are upset. He was right. We had a lead and we went away from what got us that lead. They started to come back."
The scenario repeated itself in the fourth quarter as a game-high 16-point lead was trimmed to three with six minutes left on two successful Nene free throws. On a TV timeout that followed, Bryant and Howard exchanged a few words.
"We were talking about defense and helping each other," said Howard, who finished with 12 points. "It's something that we've been talking about the last couple weeks."
This game may have halted a slide, but should be seen as a step sideways rather than forward.
The Lakers went even smaller this game, although not totally by choice as forward/center Jordan Hill was ruled out with back spasms before the contest. D'Antoni still cut forward Devins Ebanks' playing time by six minutes and Antawn Jamison by 15 minutes from Thursday's 116-107 setback against the New York Knicks.
Guard Jodie Meeks was the beneficiary, playing 30-plus minutes off the bench. He finished with 24 points, second only to Bryant's 30 for the game.
"Jodie has been a surprise for me," D'Antoni said. "He's been playing well with his energy. Everybody has that in them. He plays with energy and he plays hard."
The downside of the smaller lineup is that the Lakers were outrebounded 48-45, although Bryant had the most memorable as he cut through and tipped in a Howard missed layup late in the game.
"That was a set play," Howard joked. "We had worked on that the other day in the shoot around. It was called '12 miss.' "
Yes, there was some levity in the Lakers' locker room that was visited by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his son. It was a feeling that had been missing of late.
"One more and it's a winning streak," Lakers guard Chris Duhon yelled as he sat in front of his locker.
Jokes aside, this Lakers team will need much more than a victory in Philadelphia on Sunday to fulfill even a speck of what was expected of it before the season.