Lakers struggle in possible playoff preview

Observing the closing minutes of the Lakers’ 102-96 loss to Memphis on Sunday night, it was hard to figure out. 

Why was Kobe Bryant anchored to the bench with the outcome still in doubt? 

A healthy Kobe sitting on the sideline in crunch time is pretty much unthinkable. 

Not on Sunday night, though. 

Coach Mike Brown pulled Bryant with 5:45 left during a timeout he called after watching his superstar miss a jumper, then stand around looking for a call while the Grizzlies raced down for an easy bucket and a 93-79 lead. 

Bryant, who didn’t check back in until the 1:51 mark, with L.A. trailing 98-91, was visibly perturbed as the game wound down, but he wasn’t about to question Brown after the game. 

“If you guys are looking for a story, I’m not gonna give you one,” said Bryant, who finished with 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting. “I can’t sit here and criticize the decisions (Brown makes). As a leader of this ballclub that’s something I can’t afford to do. I have to have his back; I’ve had his back the whole season. I can’t start doing something crazy now. 

“Of course I wasn’t (happy), but it’s his decision to make. He’s makes the decision; he’s the coach.”

For his part, Brown didn’t make a big deal of keeping the best closer in the game off the floor. 

“I just decided to make a (substitution),” Brown said. “I felt like I just wanted to make a sub at the time, so I did.” 

When asked if he benched Bryant because he wasn’t pleased with his defensive play, Brown again said he just felt like making a substitution. 

“It’s not one particular thing. I made the sub, went with Metta (World Peace), sat (Kobe) for a couple of minutes, then tried to go back to him,” Brown said. “Obviously it didn’t work.” 

The Lakers were lackadaisical defensively the entire game, allowing seven Memphis players to reach double figures, led by Rudy Gay’s 18. Even when the Lakers went on a 15-0 run in the third quarter to take a one-point lead, the Grizz responded with an 8-0 run to take back the lead, which they never gave up again. 

The Grizzlies shot 51.2 percent from the field and outrebounded the Lakers 42-38 to hand them their fourth home loss and bounce back from Saturday’s 16-point loss to the Clippers, also in Staples Center. 

“Our defense played very well, holding them to just 38-percent shooting, and the bench played really well…” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “We played with a renewed spirt and a renewed energy that we hadn’t played with in a while.” 

Lakers center Andrew Bynum had an easy time scoring underneath, getting 30 points on 11-of-16 shooting. But he had just four rebounds in 41 minutes and accepted blame for the loss. 

“I definitely take responsibility,” he said. “I had only four boards and this team needs me to be more of a presence (underneath) than I was tonight. We gave up a lot of layups, and our transition defense was felonious today. Horrible.” 

So were the Laker reserves, outscored 41-9 by the Grizzlies’ backups. 

So as the Lakers (30-19) head to the Bay Area to face Golden State on Tuesday, and brace for a visit from the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday — with a highly motivated Derek Fisher going against his former team — they have several problems to deal with, and can only hope that their captain, Kobe Bryant, isn’t one of them.