Kobe Bryant returned to the lineup, but the confounding ways of the Lakers came back too.
Where to begin, other than that the Lakers lost again, this time to the undermanned Portland Trail Blazers, 91-88, and it wasn’t even in Portland.
There were missed free throws, bad shots and, curiously, an obvious lack of desire, the part that’s of greatest interest this time of year.
After all, the Lakers’ first playoff game is expected to be next Sunday.
All-Star guard Brandon Roy didn’t play the second half because of a sprained right knee, and the Lakers couldn’t do anything about it Sunday at Staples Center.
Bryant shot poorly throughout the game and missed two free-throw attempts with 6.9 seconds left and the Lakers down one. He returned from a two-game break to rest a sore right knee and scored 20 points on eight-for-23 shooting.
How strange was the afternoon?
Coach Phil Jackson diagrammed the last play for Pau Gasol, not Bryant, a three-point shot from the top of the arc with the Lakers down three. It wasn’t successful, hitting the back of the rim and bouncing away. Gasol, a 22.2% career shooter from three-point range, had taken four from long distance this season before Sunday, all of them off target.
Bryant wasn’t angry or irritated afterward. In fact, he cracked a joke or two.
On his late free-throw misses: “A meteor hits the Earth every once in a while too.”
On the last play being diagrammed for Gasol: “When have you ever seen me set a damn down-screen? That was interesting. [Jackson] just drew it up. I just cracked up.”
On top of everything else, the Lakers (56-24) fell a game behind Orlando (55-23) for the NBA’s second-best record. The Lakers have the tiebreaker because of a better record against the opposite conference, but Orlando has two easy games remaining: at Indiana and at home against Philadelphia.
The Lakers finish the regular season with a home game Tuesday against Sacramento and a designated road game Wednesday at the Clippers. Bryant said he would play both games.
For all the noise made about the Lakers’ inability to win in Portland, a losing streak that reached nine consecutive games until they finally won there in February, little has been made about the Trail Blazers’ struggles in Los Angeles.
Portland had lost five in a row to the Lakers at Staples Center before Sunday and lost Roy when Ron Artest stepped on his foot, causing his knee to jerk to the side.
So it was with a high degree of surprise when the Lakers found themselves down, 82-75, with 3:34 to play even though the Blazers were without Roy . . . and Greg Oden . . . and Joel Przybilla.
The Blazers outscored the Lakers in the second half, 46-42, with a lineup primarily of Rudy Fernandez, Martell Webster, Andre Miller, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby.
Bryant eventually grew somber as he spoke with reporters after the game, saying he was “very concerned” with the Lakers right now.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “This is not going to be easy. We’ve got a really, really rough road ahead.”
The warning signs have been there for weeks; the Lakers are 2-5 over their last seven games.
In fact, one of the coaches wrote a pregame reminder on the whiteboard before Sunday’s game: “We might face them next weekend.”
The Lakers will play Portland, San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round. They have lost to each of those teams in the last 17 days, by a combined 38 points.
Aldridge had 24 points and 11 rebounds Sunday. Camby had 17 rebounds and four blocked shots.
Bryant said his knee felt strong but he made only six of 21 shots before hitting a three-pointer with 49.3 seconds left. He converted a three-point play after getting fouled on a driving left-handed layup, giving the Lakers an 87-86 lead with 31.5 seconds left.
Webster, however, was fouled by Derek Fisher while shooting an off-balance three-point attempt with 3.1 seconds left and the score tied. He made all three free throws, and the Lakers were on their way to losing, yet again.