Befuddled Lakers looking for answers

NEW YORK – Shortly after the Madison Square Garden crowd peppered head coach Mike D’Antoni with boos, the NBA’s most dysfunctional team took the floor Thursday and lost in humiliating fashion, once again, to a legitimate championship contender.

The defeat was their sixth in seven games, dropping them to 9-14 this season, and only added more chaos to a star-studded roster from one of the country’s most unforgiving markets. And there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for this maladjusted group.

And, just so we’re clear, we’re not talking about the New York Knicks.

No, the Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA’s new feckless, overrated laughingstock, and D’Antoni’s return to the arena and the city he was chased out of less than a year ago didn’t provide the inspiration needed to right the newly formed group’s straying ship.

Thursday’s 116-107 loss to the impressive, East-leading Knicks dropped LA to 4-9 since D’Antoni took over for the fired Mike Brown (in lieu of Phil Jackson), putting the Lakers five games under .500 for the first time since the 2004-05 season — the last one to lure Jackson out of retirement. And already, some are making the case that Jackson is the only one who can cure what ails this befuddled franchise.

There’s no point being mad at what’s going on; the Lakers have already tried that, and continued to fail on the floor. And finger pointing won’t help, or else it already would have. LA can continue to blame its struggles on who it’s missing — Steve Nash (leg) and Pau Gasol (knee) — and promise that things will turn around once the team is back to full health.

That’s what the Lakers did after Thursday’s debacle — but that hasn’t done any good so far, either.

Frankly, the Lakers are out of excuses for the disarray that they’re in right now, and nothing but winning will answer the burning and confounding questions surrounding this team. But with a sieve of a defense allowing teams to score at will — the Knicks totaled 41 points in the first quarter — and an evolving offense that can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be, it might be a while before winning happens with any consistency.

“We’ve got some problems to solve,” D’Antoni said after the loss, putting things nicely — something he became an expert at while making excuses for the Knicks. “Obviously we’ve got to get our guys back, and try to be a better team. Right now, we’re struggling, and hopefully tomorrow [Friday night in Washington] we’ll be on our way back.”

Thursday’s Lakers loss, which cames on the heels of a vile loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday, was a clinic in how to get your butt kicked. From the opening tip, Los Angeles didn’t have a chance, and most of the second half was spent trying to keep the score respectable with the Knicks’ best player on the bench.

Carmelo Anthony continued to make his case for MVP consideration, following his 45-point outburst against Brooklyn on Tuesday with 30 points in 23 minutes Thursday before leaving with a sprained ankle in the third quarter.

“’Melo was a video game tonight,” said Knicks point guard Jason Kidd, who had five points, nine rebounds and five assists. “I don’t play them, but I guess you push the X button and it goes in every time.”

Anthony, who is considered day to day with the injury, according to Knicks coach Mike Woodson and GM Glen Grunwald, scored 22 first-quarter points on 8-of-9 shooting, but was one of a number of New York players who were scorching from the field.

Every Knicks player except Raymond Felton (9-of-26) shot 50 percent or better, and New York led by as many as 26 points in the win, which improved them to 17-5  — their best start in 12 years. At one point, after Rasheed Wallace’s 3-pointer gave New York a 58-32 lead with 7:20 left in the second quarter, New York was shooting 23-of-31 from the floor.

New York had no trouble penetrating the Lakers’ porous D, and was almost literally able to get any shot it wanted all night long. Dwight Howard looked a step slow in the paint — hopefully, for LA, a sign that he’s not yet 100 percent, and not one that he’s lost a step after offseason back surgery — and Howard’s teammates rarely came to help when he got beat.

And, while ‘Melo was in the game, there was little anyone could do to keep him from scoring.

“He shoots it so quick, you can’t double him, and he has those games where he just does that,” D’Antoni said of his former star forward, with whom he butted heads during his time in New York. “And when he does that, it makes them awful tough to beat.”

The latest signature moment in Anthony’s MVP-caliber season didn’t come as a surprise to Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who matched Anthony shot for shot early on and finished with a game-high 31 points. Bryant said Anthony became “gun shy” last season amid media criticism he was shooting the ball too much, something he addressed with him when the two were Olympic teammates this summer in London.

“I asked him, ‘What the hell are you doing? You have to do what you do best,’ ” Bryant recalled. “And I think the organization put pieces around him that allowed him to do that. Now you guys are all celebrating him for doing what he’s always done.”

There’s not much celebrating going on in Hollywood right now, however.

The Lakers’ 9-14 start is now their worst since 2002, when they came out of the gates 9-15. That LA team righted the ship and finished with 50 wins, and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, so there’s some precedent — and plenty of time — for a turnaround.

But that group also had a number of things going in its favor that this year’s group simply doesn’t have now and might not ever have, regardless of when Nash and Gasol return from injury.

The 2002 Lakers had a veteran nucleus that had just won three consecutive championships together. They had Kobe playing on a 24-year-old back and knees and Shaq in his prime. They had a healthy, 28-year-old Derek Fisher at point. They had Jackson calmly leading from the head of the bench.

Bryant isn’t about to throw D’Antoni under the bus for not being Phil, and you wouldn’t expect him to. But it’s clear he also won’t stand for struggling, either, and after this latest loss, Bryant spoke to the team’s frustration, going as far as to say he wished the Lakers could play the Washington Generals, the longtime punching bags of the Harlem Globetrotters, just so they can get a sure win.

“We haven’t had any stability,” Bryant said. “There’s no real sense of purpose in what we want to do.”

The Generals won’t be available to end the Lakers’ slide, but LA will get the next best thing Friday, when they visit the 3-16 Wizards. A loss in DC would be the latest devastating blow for a Lakers team that seems to hit a new low every night, but an impressive showing against Washington — inconsequential as it might have once been — might at least be a sign that there’s some hope yet for the NBA’s new most unstable team.