Bobcats 133, Lakers 124

That’s the first triple-overtime game myself or any Lakers beat writer has seen in nearly 27 years. I’m sure the fans wish it would have turned out a little differently. The Lakers should have been better prepared to face a Bobcats team that’s already beaten San Antonio, Utah, Detroit and Cleveland this season. They also should have put away the game by halftime.

Here’s what Kobe Bryant had to say afterward: “You can’t make a loss any bigger than what it is. You can’t overdramatize the situation. It’s a loss. That’s that. It’s not going to make or break the season. So you just move on from it. You don’t want to overdramatize things.”

* * *

Give credit to Charlotte’s Bernard Robinson, who didn’t play at all in the first four quarters before he was brought into the game after Gerald Wallace fouled out with a minute left in the first overtime. Robinson also drew the defensive assignment of trying to stop Bryant, who was closing in on 50 points for the game.

Robinson finished with six points in 11 minutes. As Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff said, “We wanted him to go in for defense and he ended up giving us a bit of offense. That’s why it pays to always be ready, because you never know when opportunity will come knocking at your door.”

* * *

What did we learn about the Lakers from this six-game trip? I think all you can say is that they in survival mode as long as Lamar Odom is out with a knee injury. That could be a couple of more weeks or it could be all of January. The Lakers still have a chance to close out a 10-6 December with a victory on Sunday against Philadelphia.

* * *

It was noticed by a couple of us that the referee crew for Friday’s game featured two members – - Leroy Richardson and Derrick Stafford – - from the crew Lakers coach Phil Jackson called “dubious” after a November game at Utah. Jackson was fined $25,000 from the league for those comments.

Jackson was hit with a technical foul between quarters for telling one of the referees to stay away from the Lakers bench. Bryant got a technical from Stafford in the third quarter when he complained after picking up his fourth foul. There also was the questionable blocking foul called on Kwame Brown in the last minute of regulation.

* * *

The Lakers made a couple of head-scratching plays on defense in the third quarter. Matt Carroll is known as a 3-point shooter in the NBA, so of course Maurice Evans would want to leave him to help Smush Parker off a screen-and-roll. Smush Parker also would want to leave him to go help on Melvin Ely inside.

Carroll hit two 3-pointers off those sequences. He had a career-high 27 points off the bench Friday. For what it’s worth, Carroll scored the second-most points in history as a high schooler in southeastern Pennsylvania. The only player ahead of him on the list? Kobe Bryant.

* * *

Bryant’s 58 points were a record at Charlotte Bobcats Arena, where a naming-rights deal has not yet been reached. It would be interesting to know how many arena scoring records Bryant holds. He’s got one at Staples Center and I’m pretty sure has the record at Pepsi Center in Denver as well.

* * *

Jackson lamented that Bryant missed the second of two free throws with 56.9 seconds left in the second overtime. It was a point that could have made a difference, although only because Bryant connected on a 3-pointer after the Bobcats had gone ahead 120-117 on a Raymond Felton 3-pointer.

* * *

Jackson confirmed before the game that former Lakers guard Devin Green, who was playing with the D-Fenders this season, has left to play for a German club team. Jackson also offered his thoughts on Slava Medvedenko signing with the Atlanta Hawks.

“I think Slava had his opportunities with us,” Jackson said. “He had a chance to prove himself in the league. It was probably time for him to move on and find another place.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–The Lakers came too far on this Christmas road trip, six games in 12 days, to lose to the Charlotte Bobcats with Kwame Brown’s hands betraying him in the third overtime and Kobe Bryant fouling out on a night he scored 58 points.

Yet that was what the Lakers were left with Friday, long after they should have been flying home to Los Angeles, as the Bobcats celebrated a 133-124 triumph.

It was the third-highest scoring game of Bryant’s career, coming as he went 22 of 45 from the field and played 54 minutes, and went for naught at the end of the 3 hour, 20 minute game.

The Lakers played their first three-overtime game since they lost in four overtimes to Cleveland on Jan. 29, 1980. They also lost for the second consecutive season here to the Bobcats, who won for only the eighth time in 29 games.

After the Bobcats had chances to win at the end of the first and second overtimes, the Lakers could have gone ahead 124-120 at the start of the third overtime. Bryant drove and dumped a pass to Brown for what should have been a sure basket.

Then it wasnt. Brown fumbled the ball out of bounds. He went on to commit an offensive foul and couldn’t pick up another pass in the third overtime, spoiling a game in which he finished with 11 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks.

“We’re going to feed him Butterfingers on the flight home just so he can feel the effects of it,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “There was certainly some disappointment in the ability – - or non-ability – - of Kwame to complete plays that we thought were big plays for us.

Brown, however, directed his criticism at the Lakers’ pick-and-roll defense as he walked to the team bus. The Bobcats got one basket after another in the overtime periods running the same play for Raymond Felton and Emeka Okafor.

“It’s sad that you’ve got to say we won or lost that game over a fumble,” Brown said. “The second pass wasn’t even catchable. If you look on tape, we are the worst pick and roll defensive team in the league. No way Emeka Okafor (should) get three layups at the rim.

“The reason why big men drop passes is because of pressure of a guard rotating over. We dont even rotate. Guys get layups at the rim. Thats terrible, thats terrible.

Okafor finished with 22 points and 25 rebounds while Felton had 22 points and 15 assists in 57 minutes. The Lakers eventually gave up trying to defend the screen-and-roll and went to a zone defense with 2:46 left in the second overtime.

The Lakers finished the trip with the 3-3 split Jackson wanted before setting out but wasted the chance for more. They led 105-102 in the final minute of regulation when Gerald Wallace (28 points) drove the lane out of a timeout.

Wallace went crashing into Brown, who had position and both feet out of the restricted area. He pushed in the shot while Brown was called for a blocking foul by referee Leroy Richardson.

“I dont know why it should have gone either way, Jackson said. “It definitely was a charge. But we seemed to be sold the idea that his feet were in that restricted area.

The Lakers could have won the game in regulation but Bryant missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Felton missed a potential winning 3-pointer for the Bobcats at the end of the first overtime and a runner in the lane with 2.9 seconds left in the second overtime.

The only games in which Bryant finished with more points than Friday came when he scored 81 against Toronto and 62 against Dallas last season. But Bryant found himself watching the last 5:19 of the third quarter after picking up a fourth foul.

He came back for the fourth quarter and carried the Lakers, scoring 14 of their 20 points as a team. Bryant also brought the Lakers back from down 117-113 in the second overtime, hitting a jumper and drawing contact from Okafor as part of a three-point play.

Bryant also buried a 3-pointer with 21.6 seconds left in the second overtime after Felton hit one at the other end for Charlotte. He played nearly 26 minutes without being called for a fifth foul before catching Derek Andersons arm on a 3-pointer in the third overtime.

Anderson converted all three free throws to put the Bobcats up 129-124. Bryant then fouled out with 38.2 seconds left on a charge taken by Anderson. He took 45 of the Lakers 100 shots in the game, two shy of his career high.

“Sometimes youve got to do what youve got to do to keep your team in the game, try to get a win, Bryant said. “Hopefully, our next game will be a little different.

Jackson wasnt happy Bryant had to shoulder so much of the load. The Bobcats elected to let Wallace fend for himself much of the game against Bryant, instead of the “kitchen sink defenses Bryant had seen at almost every stop on this trip.

“I was yelling at them to run their offense and get away from that, Jackson said, “and they just seemed to be going back to him all the time.

Bryant also was asked how he could pick up Brown after such a disappointing end to the game. Brown injured his right wrist in the first quarter, possibly contributing to his bad hands late.

“You dog him a little bit, Bryant said. “You let him know. You ride him a little bit. But hes a key part of this team and we know that and he knows that and hell bounce back.

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Thursday report

I knew it was time to go home this morning at the Orlando airport when a woman broke down in tears as the security checkpoint crew confiscated a $30 bottle of lotion. You see it all when you travel around the holidays. We’ve been on the road for 11 days now and I’m tired of hauling around 49.999 pounds of luggage.

One of the highlights from practice today came in Phil Jackson tweaking Kwame Brown ever so mildly. It seems that Jackson has identified Brown as the player he can prod the most in his second act as Lakers coach. The question today was about calling more plays out of the triangle offense for Brown.

“Thats the only way he knows how to play,” Jackson said. “He only thinks he can play if his number’s called. That is a real deficit that way and most of the time he either travels and loses the ball on it when you do.

“We don’t mind if he participates in the game. The little things that he can do for us are really important. He doesn’t have to worry about that aspect.”

Brown sat out practice after banging knees in the Orlando game. He’s actually one of the most good-natured guys on the team, as evidenced Wednesday night when he announced to the locker room that he couldn’t wait to hear what Smush Parker had to say to reporters about his big game.

* * *

Fishing for a storyline today at practice, I asked Jackson if he had talked to Michael Jordan since Jordan took over as the Bobcats’ managing member of basketball operations. Jackson said he hadn’t, an answer that unfortunately could not shed any new light on what exactly Jordan is doing for the Charlotte franchise.

ESPN.com’s Chris Sheridan wrote an interesting article back in October trying to gauge Jordan’s influence. Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff does say that he talks to Jordan every day about what is going on with the team. The Bobcats have a host of promising young players but also have a payroll that’s barely above the NBA minimum.

* * *

If you looked closely, Kobe Bryant was back wearing his first-generation Nike sneaker in Wednesday’s game at Orlando. Bryant debuted the new second-generation model in the Christmas game and said he will wear them a second time in the Lakers’ Jan. 15 game against the Heat. The shoes won’t go on sale for another couple of months.

* * *

The NBA announced its second returns Thursday in fan voting for the All-Star game starters. Bryant still leads all Western Conference guards with 1.187 million votes but now has to contend with Allen Iverson’s arrival in the conference. Iverson has received 975,319 votes, third behind Bryant and Tracy McGrady.

* * *

Mark your calendars for Feb. 5: It’s going to be time for Slava’s Revenge as the Lakers play the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena.

The Hawks on Thursday signed forward/center Slava Medvedenko, who played six seasons with the Lakers, to bolster a frontcourt in need of help after losing Josh Smith to hernia surgery.

Medvedenko played on two championship teams but saw his tenure with the Lakers end when he suffered a back injury last season and fainted in an elevator after eating only a candy bar for breakfast.

* * *

It was overlooked in Wednesday’s game, but Jackson again got good minutes from his bench. He put a lineup of Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Maurice Evans, Vladimir Radmanovic and Andrew Bynum on the court with 8:38 left and the Lakers leading Orlando 85-80.

By the time Jackson brought Bryant back off the bench with 4:59 remaining, the reserves had extended that lead to 95-85. Radmanovic and Vujacic both drove for baskets while Bynum hit a hook shot over Darko Milicic and dunked off a pass.

We’ll see after Friday’s game against Charlotte if this will be remembered as the road trip where the bench players came into their own. It happened for sure in the fourth quarter against Minnesota. The Lakers also got a big lift from Evans in their victory over New Jersey.

* * *

Notes for Friday….

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–After 10 seasons with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant has a theory about why he and his teammates are marked men whenever they walk into a visiting arena.

Its more than just the championship banners hanging back at Staples Center. In Bryants opinion, it has something to do with the winter weather as well.

“When you play for the Lakers, Bryant said, “you go on the road in January and December, you go to these cities and its freezing. Its snowing. We live in L.A., so its sunny all the time. So teams just automatically have it out for us.

The good news is temperatures are expected in the 60s before tonights game against the Charlotte Bobcats, a team the Lakers paid the price for overlooking last season.

The Bobcats had lost 13 games in a row last February before stunning the Lakers 112-102 at their downtown arena. The Lakers gave up 40 points in the first quarter, trailed the entire game and were “embarrassed in coach Phil Jackson words Thursday.

Although they are just 7-21, the Bobcats have beaten San Antonio, Detroit, Cleveland and Utah this season. They also are all that remains between the Lakers and a successful road trip while playing without the injured Lamar Odom.

“I think we understand the magnitude of this game, Bryant said. “To be able to go 4-2 on this trip, when were missing one of our key guys, would be a very successful trip if we can get this win.

The Lakers almost never fail to see an opposing teams best effort, particularly playing on the road in the Eastern Conference. The Bobcats have sold out both home games against the Lakers in their existence.

“Its not a curse at all, Jackson said. “Its a blessing that the games are animated and theyre lively and theyre anticipated by the fans. I think that makes teams play harder. It gives us an advantage overall. It makes us have to be a better team all the way around.

Spaced out: Jackson made a couple of teasing comments about forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who had a 17-point game against Minnesota on this trip but has left his coach scratching his head at other times.

Jackson called Radmanovic a “space cadet and said he often asks, “Do you understand really what were trying to get accomplished here? when it comes to the triangle offense. Radmanovic answers yes, even when he doesnt fully grasp things.

“Hes kind of a free spirit on the floor, Jackson added. “You just cant get away from that aspect of his game. Hes going to touch the ball and shoot it, and even though I tell him, `Those arent usually good shots, he still wants to know if hes hot.

“If hes not hot, he wants to get hot. If hes not going to get hot, then he wants to shoot so he can get hot.

Injury report: Center Kwame Brown did not practice but is expected to play tonight after banging knees in Wednesdays game. Guard Sasha Vujacic sprained his left ankle at the end of practice and was helped off the court.

Forward Luke Walton, meanwhile, is suffering from discomfort in the back of his left knee. Walton sat out practice and said he wasnt sure how the injury happened.

“Its one of things that just kind of annoys but doesnt hurt, Walton said. “This morning, I woke up . . . it hurt.

Kennel club: From the time they played together at Gonzaga, Lakers forward Ronny Turiaf and Charlottes Adam Morrison are so beloved in Spokane, Wash., that Turiaf jokes about being the president of the city while Morrison is the mayor.

They will meet tonight for the first time in the NBA. Morrison is averaging 13.4 points and leading all rookies in scoring despite shooting 37.2 percent.

“Hes such a good friend of mine, even though we play on opposite teams, Turiaf said. “We spent three years playing together and have that special bond. Its going to be fun seeing him wear that different jersey.

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Kobe’s new sneaker

For all those interested, Kobe Bryant wore his new Nike sneakers at the Lakers’ practice Sunday. He’ll debut them in the Christmas game against the Heat. The most significant addition seemed to be a strap across the front that had KB24 on the front and “Carpe Diem” on the back. Bryant said they were the “lightest shoes Ive ever been in.”

Not sure how this will turn out, but here’s a camera-phone picture of the new shoes.

i-53d2f1dcf92bb23c4ecb2eb72b1b80c0-241206-121911.jpg

* * *

Some quotes from today’s practice that I couldn’t get in my stories for Monday…

Kobe on his conditioning: “That probably wont get there until about February or so. Its just games. The more you play, you get into game shape. By February is when I hit my stride.

Kobe on getting up to play Dwyane Wade: “What gets me up is us playing well as a team, in all honesty. In other words, if we come out here tomorrow and Kwame Brown has a career night, Luke Walton has a career night, something like that, that gets me up.

“The individual matchups dont get me up. Not anymore. Ive been doing it for 10 years. Ive seen all of those matchups, from myself to (Michael) Jordan to Vince (Carter) to (Tracy) McGrady. That doesnt excite me anymore. What excites me is these guys stepping up and having a hell of a game.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson agreed with Bryant’s comments that the young players could carry the day against the Heat.

“I guess if youve seen a lot of big games over the course of your career like Kobe has, theres some things that could be said for that,” Jackson said. “That the younger players have an opportunity to shine on the national spotlight.

* * *

Bryant said he felt better after battling a respiratory infection but still walked off the court carrying a box of tissues. Kwame Brown also suggested that Bryant’s knee has been giving him problems recently.

“We’ve got to bring the energy,” Brown said. “We’ve got to help Kobe out. I know his knee’s been a little sore. (Jordan) Farmar came in, Andrew (Bynum) came in. They run the offense a little better than we do.”

* * *

Gary Payton didn’t practice Sunday with the Heat. The team said he was excused because of personal reasons. Payton is averaging just 6.0 points this season but scored 21 against the Lakers last year on Christmas.

* * *

The Lakers have lost their last four games on Christmas Day, including two in a row against the Heat.

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Lakers 111, Timberwolves 94

There were a couple of jokes made after Wednesday’s game about Kevin Garnett immediately demanding a trade after the Timberwolves’ implosion. A couple of jokes also were made about the Lakers showcasing the package of Vladimir Radmanovic, Maurice Evans and Andrew Bynum they would offer Minnesota for Garnett.

On the serious side, that was an inspirational win for the Lakers, who won’t play another set of back-to-back games on this long road trip. It had special meaning for Evans, who is close friends with Garnett from the rookie season he played with the Timberwolves.

“It was a great feeling because for me, I played here and Kevin Garnett’s one of my best friends in the league and all that good stuff,” Evans said. “It’s always great to beat a great friend and to play a good game. We needed this game. We’re in the middle of a road trip, without Lamar (Odom), shorthanded. We needed a win and we got it.”

Evans finished with 15 points and hit 7 of 9 shots in 21 minutes. He also got some encouragement from Lakers coach Phil Jackson in the second half.

“At the end of the third, I thought Maurice was a little bit tentative with the basketball,” Jackson said. “I said, `Don’t just stand there with the ball looking to make a pass in our offense.’ You can active it by driving, which he did. He got going in the second half, started taking it to the hoop.”

For what it’s worth, Garnett’s postgame quotes made it sound as if he’s done a lot of scouting and reading about the Lakers.

“Me, just being a student of the game,” Garnett said, “I’ve been reading that some of their last three games, Phil Jackson was getting mad at them because they were shooting a lot of 3s.”

Garnett was asked if he was surprised the Lakers made a run with Bryant out. He clearly saw some tape from the second quarter of Tuesday’s game at Chicago, when the bench players helped build a lead.

“No,” Garnett said, “because they did the same thing in Chicago. When Kobe is in there he takes the majority of the shots. He tries to get the ball moving, but at the end of the day, he takes the bulk of the shots. He makes a lot of things happen with those shots. It’s easy to guard a team when there’s one guy and you have to focus on him and keep everybody under control.

“When you have four guys who can shoot the 3; Bynum played well, he was agressive and active in the middle. You have four shooters out there, two point guards in the game. They’re scrappy, it’s a good mix. You have to find a way to divert that and get them to do different things. Get them to go to the basket knowing they like to shoot 3s. It’s hard to play a team that moves the ball.”

* * *

A couple of key stats: The seven points Minnesota scored in the fourth quarter was a franchise low. The Lakers had 11 assists in the fourth quarter. Bryant’s 30 minutes would have been a season-low if not for the game against Indiana that he had to leave early with a sprained ankle.

* * *

Brian Cook started in place of Radmanovic and finished with 11 points on 5 of 11 shooting in 28 minutes. It was a disappointing game for Kwame Brown, who started out by missing several gimmes around the basket. Brown had six points and four rebounds but Jackson benched him in the third quarter.

The Lakers’ bench players also had something to prove after their fourth-quarter play Tuesday. The Bulls exposed them on the pick-and-roll as Michael Sweetney scored eight points and his team never looked back. Here’s another number for you: The Lakers outscored Minnesota 48-21 when Bryant was on the bench.

You’ve got to think Jackson wishes he could save some of those points for other games this season.

* * *

The Lakers played a game here against the Timberwolves in the 2004-05 season that was a little eerie in its similarity to Wednesday’s game. They came back from nine points down in the fourth quarter to win with neither Bryant nor Lamar Odom on the floor. Bryant sat for more than 7 1/2 minutes in the fourth.

The unit on the floor in that game was Caron Butler, Brian Cook, Jumaine Jones, Chris Mihm and Chucky Atkins. There were three starters in that group as opposed to none Wednesday. The fourth quarter score, I’m pretty sure, also wasn’t 34-7. Maybe it’s the cold air here or something.

* * *

After covering a couple of (near) 3-hour games in the last week, it was nice to see Wednesday’s game check it at 2 hours, 4 minutes. On to New York City tomorrow.

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS–As the fourth-quarter comeback moved from the realm of inspiring to staggering Wednesday night, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton and the rest of the Lakers starters did the only thing they could.

They popped out of their seats like pistons to cheer for a unit of Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Maurice Evans, Vladimir Radmanovic and Andrew Bynum, who dealt the Minnesota Timberwolves a shocking loss.

Having spotted the Timberwolves 87 points on 61.7 percent shooting and a 10-point lead through three quarters, the Lakers gave up just seven points the rest of the way and scored 34 of their own to take a 111-94 victory.

They won with Kobe Bryant scoring 24 points and playing 30 minutes, a far cry from his 54- and 47-minute marathons in recent games. Bryant sat until the 3:25 mark of the fourth quarter, when he returned with the Lakers leading by 10.

“We had a good time, Bryant said. “I was sitting next to Luke and he and I were just enjoying it tremendously. The more time you get to sit on the bench, the better.

“I was especially happy for them because it gives them confidence, to perform like this on the road. It just builds confidence for later in the season. We were enjoying it.

The Lakers second five combined to score 51 points with every player contributing. Radmanovic (17 points) and Evans (15) took care of the scoring while Farmar totaled four points, seven assists and no turnovers.

Vujacic broke out of a season-long slump, knocking down two big 3-pointers, and scored eight points. And Bynum played the last 19:21 of the game, finishing with seven points, nine rebounds and matching a career-high with four blocks.

It was enough for the Lakers to rebound after consecutive losses and turn conventional wisdom on its head. One of coach Phil Jacksons biggest beliefs is that bench players come together better at home than on the road.

“Its one of those games, Jackson said, “where you look at each other and say, `Go figure as a coaching staff.

The reserves also built an eight-point lead in the second quarter. Jackson challenged the group in the pregame meeting, saying, “Were going to have to have a bench that produces tonight if were going to win this ballgame.

The Lakers went down by 12 points on the first possession of the fourth quarter, then roared back with stop after stop on the defensive end. Minnesota made just 2 of 19 shots in the fourth and committed five turnovers.

Evans helped force a couple of turnovers and Bynum came up with a big block of Randy Foye in the lane. They tied the game at 91-91 with 7:49 left on a play that told the story of just how well the unit was clicking.

Vujacic drove baseline against Marko Jaric before firing a pass to Farmar in the corner. Farmar then passed the ball on to Evans beyond the 3-point arc. Evans faked a shot, took a dribble in and drilled a 21-footer.

“We just moved the ball, Vujacic said, “and we used every extra pass that we could use and we just have to carry on and do that every game in the next four games on the road.

Walton added: “The first unit, if we watch tape, we can probably learn a little bit from the way theyre playing right now.

They took the lead for good the next time down court as Farmar lobbed a pass to Bynum for a layup. Minnesota coach Dwane Casey brought back Kevin Garnett and Mike James; Jackson opted to ride the momentum of his reserves.

It was a test for Bynum, in particular. Jackson has talked about Bynum fatiguing after six- or seven-minute stretches. But he stuck with Bynum for nearly the entire second half after deciding Kwame Brown was not playing hard.

Bynum blocked three shots in the fourth quarter, held his own against Garnett, pulled down five rebounds, ran the floor for a fastbreak dunk and found Evans cutting for a basket that put the Lakers ahead 100-91.

“When you get like that, Jackson said, “sometimes youre never tired.

Vujacic, meanwhile, got the call as the first guard off the bench. He came into Wednesday shooting just 32.8 percent for the season but went 3 of 4 from the field and 2 of 3 from the 3-point arc.

“I think that every player has one blackout period in his year, Vujacic said. “Im glad thats hopefully behind me. Id like everybody to know it wasnt great, but now Im going to do everything thats going to be better.

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Bench minutes

If you’ve been reading this blog all season, you know that I refer to the time when Kobe Bryant sits as the “adventure minutes” of every game. You never know what lineup Phil Jackson is going to put on the court and you never know quite what the Lakers are going to do.

The adventure minutes once again were pivotal in Tuesday’s loss to Chicago. The Lakers played a lineup of Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Maurice Evans, Vladimir Radmanovic and Andrew Bynum and bought Bryant 5:23 of rest at the start of the second quarter, building as much as a 10-point lead.

The big play during that sequence came as Evans made a great spin move and scored off an alley-oop pass from Farmar. He was fouled as well and converted the three-point play as the Lakers went up 34-28. Jackson gambled in not having Bryant or Luke Walton on the court and had it pay off.

The Lakers outscored Chicago 12-6 with Bryant out in the second quarter. The fourth quarter, however, could not have been any different. Jackson went with the same lineup except for playing Walton instead of Radmanovic.

The big play this time came on – - what else? – - a screen-and-roll sequence. Michael Sweetney scored as part of a three-point play in which he had the ball slapped out of his hands but recovered to power it into the basket. Vujacic fouled him and Bynum slapped the basket standard in frustration.

In the fourth, the Lakers were outscored 10-4 with Bryant on the bench. He sat out just 3:45 before having to be rushed back. The Lakers had no answer for the screen-roll – - Sweetney scored eight points in the quarter – - and you had to wonder if Jackson wished he’d gone with Kwame Brown or Ronny Turiaf instead of Bynum.

“They got us on our heels with scome screen-roll with Sweetney and (Chris) Duhon and that created a situation for us out there that made us kind of timid,” Jackson said.

* * *

In case you missed it, the Phoenix Suns won their 15th straight game and now lead the Pacific Division by 2 1-2 games over the Lakers. It’s going to be an absolute dogfight in the Western Conference this season, especially with Denver acquiring Allen Iverson on Tuesday.

It will be interesting to see how the Lakers respond Wednesday against Minnesota. The Lakers are playing the second game of a back-to-back and the Timberwolves have been off since Saturday. The Suns are playing a back-to-back at Denver as well. The Nuggets won’t have Iverson or their suspended players.

If you’re a Lakers fan, you don’t want to start seeing Phoenix take a four- or five-game lead in the division this early. The way the playoff seedings are set up, unless the Lakers finish with the second-best record in the entire conference, they probably would draw a fifth or sixth seed.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

CHICAGO–The Lakers flew halfway across the country to open a six-game road trip against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night. It turned out they left their legs behind in Los Angeles thanks to double-overtime and overtime games last weekend.

That was only conclusion coach Phil Jackson could draw after the Lakers went from 11 points ahead in the third quarter to eight points down in the fourth and went on to lose 94-89 at United Center.

Jackson alternately described the Lakers as “ragged and “very lethargic and said he told the team during a fourth-quarter timeout with 6:35 left, “Youre playing tired like youre 20 behind or 15 behind.

“This was a ballgame that I felt this team should have won tonight, Jackson added. “Our team didnt obviously win it but we were leading, controlling the game for two-and-half quarters and really just came up short in energy in the process.

The Lakers scored 52 fewer points than they did two nights earlier against Washington as Kobe Bryant fouled out in the final minute with 19 points and made just 6 of 19 shots.

They now have lost consecutive games for only the second time all season and were exposed by the Bulls with one screen-and-roll after another in the fourth quarter.

While Bryant rested on the bench, Mike Sweetney scored eight points in four minutes, all off the screen-and-roll with Chris Duhon. The Lakers struggled to defend the play with their reserve guards and teenage center Andrew Bynum on the floor.

“Youve got to give up something, Kwame Brown said. “Id rather give up a 3-pointer than a layup or a dunk. Guys got to start giving themselves up instead of worrying about their man scoring.

This was serious business for Jackson, who selected the Bulls as the one team for which he would personally prepare the scouting report this season. That left Jackson writing keys to the game on the locker room board in the 90 minutes before tip-off.

On the defensive side, Jackson wanted to keep the Bulls from getting out in transition, play solid screen/roll defense, run Andres Nocioni off his shot and control Luol Deng, which Jackson highlighted under “Deng, Ding, Dong.

He wanted the Lakers to beat Chicago from the inside out, with a message to Brown to “do something productive with the ball. The Bulls were not the same team the Lakers beat last month, winning for the 12th time in 13 games Tuesday.

The Lakers went into the fourth quarter tied at 70-70 but had to fight back from eight points down once they brought their starters back. They had a chance to tie with 2:06 left but Maurice Evans missed a 3-pointer off a Bryant pass.

It was just one of the 16 missed 3-pointers for the Lakers. The Bulls ran out for a basket by Deng. The Lakers missed the defense of injured forward Lamar Odom on Deng, who led Chicago with 23 points and 12 rebounds.

Coming out of a timeout down 89-84, Brown had his shot blocked by Ben Wallace. Brown totaled a season-high 18 points and 12 rebounds in the game and claimed afterward that he was fouled on the play.

“That was not a block, Brown said. “ If you go look at tape, that was not a block. They didnt call it as they shouldnt against the Defensive Player of the Year. Next time Ill go up stronger.

Bryant fouled out with 52.4 seconds left, having picked up three fouls in the last five minutes. He left wagging his finger at referee Scott Foster and said afterward he pulled his hand back on Thabo Sefoloshas jumper to avoid a sixth foul.

It was a frustrating night all around for Bryant. The Lakers played him at the scoring wing spot hoping to take advantage of the smaller guards defending him. But Duhon and others succeeded in fronting Bryant and keeping the ball out of his hands.

After scoring 53 and 45 points against Houston and Washington over the weekend, Bryant was held under 20 Tuesday and missed all five 3-pointers he took.

“It looked like Kobe was just ragged out there, Jackson said. “Even his free throws were short. It was just a matter of lively nature and energy that you need to have to play a game.

The only bright spot might have come in Bryant playing only 38 minutes. The Lakers will play the second game of a back-to-back tonight at Minnesota before continuing on to New Jersey, Miami, Orlando and Charlotte.

“We just have to learn how to push through that, Bryant said. “Thats what the seasons about is learning how to adapt. I think having those two games definitely took a little bit out of us. I think a lot of our shots were falling short, legs werent really there.

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Lakers 112, Rockets 101

The last time the Lakers played a double overtime game came on the last night of the 2003-04 regular season. Kobe Bryant hit not one but two incredible jumpers over Theo Ratliff as the Lakers won the Pacific Division. There are a couple of pictures of the two shots posted in the Lakers’ p.r. office to this day.

I’m not sure if Friday’s game tops that one but it was, as public address announcer Lawrence Tanter signed off by saying, “a game we’ll all remember for a long, long time.”

Bryant’s twisting dunk over Yao Ming – - who had a Ratliff-like game blocking shots – - in the second overtime had to be the play of the night. But I think Bryant’s steal coming out of a timeout with 2:21 left in the fourth quarter helped turn the game around.

If you remember, Smush Parker had just lost the ball out of bounds at the other end. The Lakers were trailing 85-81 and had possession. Bryant jumps on a pass to Luther Head and races the other way where he draws a foul and hits two free throws. Now you’re looking at a two-point game.

Considering Bryant had played 42 minutes by then, it was a hell of a defensive effort. The next time down court, he drove and kicked out a pass to Parker for a 3-pointer that put the Lakers ahead. They still needed two overtimes to win but the game could have gone either way there in the fourth quarter.

Some other thoughts before heading to bed. . . .

The Hack-A-Kwame backfired with 59.1 seconds left when Head was called for a foul away from the play on Brown. Bryant hit the free throw but the Lakers couldn’t capitalize as Luke Walton was blocked by Yao. You have to wonder if the Rockets decision to start intentionally fouling Brown didn’t throw them off every so slightly. Brown did miss three of four free throws.

Kobe Bryant after the game: “Even though we were down 20, I felt lke the game was ours, as funny as that sounds.”

The Lakers finished what looked like an impossible week of games – - San Antonio, at Houston, at Dallas, Houston – - by going 3-1. They’ve won six games already in December, a month in which somebody who shall remain nameless picked them to finish 8-8. They should have some momentum leaving on the big six-game trip Monday.

Another thing: The Lakers again stopped a losing streak before it started. They’ve dropped consecutive games only once this season. That’s one of the things that separates good teams from great ones.

Phil Jackson was in full coach’s mode after the game, talking about avoiding a letdown against Washington on Sunday. The Wizards beat the Heat for the first time in 17 games on Friday and Jackson said he watched them celebrate the big win before the Lakers played. Washington also beat Denver 120-91 earlier this week.

Shane Battier now has been on the wrong end of two 50-point games by Bryant, who had his old career-high of 56 against the Grizzlies back in January 2002. I actually was impressed with how effective Battier was in getting a hand in Bryant’s face to mess with his line of vision. Of course, Bryant still had 53.

They’re still updating the Daily News site, but you can check back at www.dailynews.com/sports in the morning and my game story should be posted.

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Odom out four weeks

After seeing the team doctor back in Los Angeles, Lamar Odom is expected to be out a minimum of four weeks with a moderately sprained MCL in his right knee. That would sideline Odom for at least 13 games and have him returning sometime in the second week of January. That was consistent with the best-case scenario coach Phil Jackson offered last night.

The Lakers have the experience of playing without Kobe Bryant this season, which should serve them well playing without Odom. One problem is that Bryant is going to have to shoulder the load and Jackson is going to be hard-pressed to limit his superstar guard to the 38 to 40 minutes a game he hoped.

Bryant played all but 39 seconds in the first half Tuesday against Houston. Jackson had hoped to sit him the final 6:56 but the bench couldn’t hang onto a 20-plus-point lead. The Lakers rarely inspire confidence when they play without either Bryant or Odom on the floor. Jackson always tries to have one of the two in whatever lineup he plays.

It will also be interesting to see to whom Jackson turns to replace Odom. He could start either Brian Cook or Vladimir Radmanovic on Dirk Nowitzki tonight. Another option would be starting Maurice Evans and having Luke Walton match up on Nowitzki in a small lineup. It’s not ideal to play Walton as a power forward but Evans brings a combination of scoring and defense that would serve the starting five well.

When the season started, I said there was no way Bryant and Odom would play 80 games again. That the Lakers had both their stars stay healthy was one of the most remarkable things about last season. Bryant already has missed three games coming back from knee surgery and spraining his ankle. Odom’s out for 13 games at least. These are the injuries the Lakers were able to avoid last season.

The sprained knee probably ends Odom’s hopes of being selected to the All-Star team, which is recognition he’s wanted since coming to the Lakers in the Shaquille O’Neal trade. I think the Lakers and Odom both would be happy right now if he made it back in time for that monster eight-game road trip beginning at the end of January.

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Lakers 102, Rockets 94

So much for life on the road for the Lakers. Not even three minutes into their game at Toyota Center and Lamar Odom was grabbing for his right knee as he tried to run down court after having a drive blocked by Shane Battier. Odom suffered a sprained MCL and is likely to be out for several weeks. The good news is that the ligament is not torn.

The Lakers play Dallas tonight. Feel free to play Phil Jackson and figure out how best to match up without Odom. The Mavericks start Devin Harris (Smush Parker), Jason Terry (Kobe Bryant) and Erick Dampier (Kwame Brown).
You have to decide if you want to play Luke Walton on Josh Howard and use either Vladimir Radmanovic or Brian Cook on Dirk Nowitzki. Or you can start Maurice Evans on Howard and play Walton on Nowitzki.

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

HOUSTON–As bad as the last four minutes were Tuesday night for the Lakers, when they had to bring Kobe Bryant off the bench to avoid blowing a 27-point lead and escape with a 102-94 victory, the first four minutes were even worse.

The Lakers lost Lamar Odom to a sprained MCL in his right knee early in the first quarter against the Houston Rockets, an injury that sent their versatile forward to the hospital for an MRI and left him with an uncertain prognosis.

When he emerged from the trainers room after the game, Odom had a brace on his knee, a pair of crutches to lean on and an appointment to be reevaluated by team doctors today in Los Angeles.

“I would say wed be really happy if hes playing again in January, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “That would be probably our best case. He felt it was pretty loose when he came off the court.

Odom was hopeful that he could return in a week or two with rehab, although he admitted that he was trying to be optimistic. Bryant said he was happy Odom did not suffer a season-ending injury.

This two-game road trip was supposed to tell Jackson how well his team could make adjustments from one night to the next. Now the Lakers could be facing weeks of playing without Odom, who had been putting up the best numbers of his career.

The Lakers have the experience of playing the entire preseason and three regular-season games without Bryant. Jackson would not say who would start in place of Odom but his options include Vladimir Radmanovic, Brian Cook and Maurice Evans.

“We have to reorganize our team a little bit, Jackson said, “because Lamar has such an expanded role on this team.

Odom was injured two minutes in as he drove the lane and was blocked by Shane Battier. He said he didnt know if he sprained the knee going up or coming down on the play.

“I got the shot blocked, I tried to run back, tried not to show no pain, Odom said. “But on the way up and down, I felt like something was really wrong. Hopefully, it wont take no time. I can just rehab and get back quick.

Odom stayed in for another 1 1-2 minutes before Jackson called timeout and substituted Cook for him. Only 10 hours earlier, Bryant said Odom, averaging 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists, deserved to be considered a top 25 player in the league.

The Lakers rode Bryant harder than ever with Odom out, playing him all but 39 seconds in the first half. Bryant finished with 23 points on 8 of 26 shooting with eight rebounds and seven assists but his easy night was not to be.

Bryant had departed with 6:56 left and the Lakers leading 94-73, strapping a bag of ice to his right knee and trying to steal some rest with the second game of a back-to-back set tonight in Dallas.

But the Rockets staged a furious comeback and Bryant had to return with 4:00 remaining after a John Lucas 3-pointer cut the Lakers lead to 94-87. The Rockets scored 19 straight points in the quarter.

The Lakers held on for dear life as Bryant missed all four shots down the stretch and escaped only because the Rockets missed 4 of 6 free throws in the last two minutes. Scott Padgett came up empty at the line with a chance to tie with 1:17 remaining.

“The bench has to be more solid out there to finish a ballgame out, Jackson said.

The Lakers won the third quarter 30-13 as they opened up the floor with Bryants passing and some aggressive defense. They converted 10 Houston turnovers into 15 points and took advantage as the Rockets were quick to send a second defender Bryants way.

Yao Ming led the Rockets with 26 points but made just 1 of 5 shots in the second half and had three turnovers. Houston played without Tracy McGrady, who missed the game with back spasms, and will face the Lakers again Friday at Staples Center.

Odom almost assuredly wont be in action, playing on what would have been the first birthday of his son Jayden, who suffocated in his crib in June. After Tuesdays injury, a difficult week became even more so for Odom.

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Monday report

I’m hoping tonight there aren’t a lot of parents who decided to buy their kids a new NBA game ball for Christmas instead of a PlayStation 3. For those of us who spent six hours traveling today, David Stern decided to scrap the microfiber composite ball and bring back the leather ball effective Jan. 1.

The Lakers will play the second-to-last game of the synthetic ball era on Dec. 31 against an A.I.-less Philadelphia 76ers team at Staples Center. If you were looking for any reason to go to that New Year’s Eve game, I guess you have it now.

Back when they made the switch, the Lakers’ equipment manager, Rudy Garciduenas, said all the leather balls were snapped up by coaches and players who wanted them as collector’s items. Are they all going to have to return them now?

Spalding also claimed that 90 percent of NBA players exclusively played with a composite ball at all levels of the game before they made it to the pros. The college game uses synthetic balls as does the international game. Does it make sense for the NBA to be the one league that doesn’t?

It seems absurd to make the switch midseason. Those first few games with the leather ball are going to be adventures for sure. I’m certain Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson will have something to say about things Tuesday. I’m also wondering if Bryant will be so happy to see the change – - he’s shooting a career-best 49.5 percent.

* * *

According to the Houston Chronicle, Tracy McGrady is out for Tuesday’s game as he continues to suffer from back spasms. McGrady injured his back Saturday in the Rockets’ game against Washington. You have to wonder if McGrady will be healthy enough to play the second game of a back-to-back set against the Lakers on Friday.

I assume Luther Head will start in McGrady’s place. Lakers coach Phil Jackson talked at practice Monday about being committed to playing Yao Ming straight-up, as opposed to double-teaming, out of respect for the Rockets’ 3-point shooters. Head and Rafer Alston both can knock down 3-pointers.

* * *

Andrew Bynum didn’t play in any of the Lakers’ three games against Houston last season. He would be getting his first taste of playing Yao on Tuesday. Nothing like learning on the job against Tim Duncan and Yao Ming two nights apart.

* * *

If they beat Houston, the Lakers would improve to 15-6, which would put them nine games above .500 for the first time since the Shaquille O’Neal trade. The Lakers finished last season 45-37.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–The philosophical side of coach Phil Jackson came out at practice Monday, with the Lakers heading to Texas for two games and Jackson hoping to see not only a “sense of determination but a “oneness of thought or mind.

It is the first multi-game trip of the Lakers season and comes after they have played a quarter of their regular-season schedule. The Lakers played 15 of their first 20 games at home, a schedule unlike any other in franchise history.

That the Lakers are 14-6, having beaten San Antonio on Sunday at Staples Center, has led to questions about whether they are one of the Western Conferences elite teams or if their success largely has been a product of the schedule.

The Lakers will face Houston tonight and Dallas on Wednesday, starting a stretch in which they will play eight of 10 games on the road and 22 of 34 away from home through the All-Star break.

“If you play good basketball, you can win anywhere you go, Jackson said, adding that walking into an arena with 15,000 opposing fans “does take some collective thought and resiliency as a team.

“Thats one of the issues that we have to face as a team, he added, “and know that brings the best out in ballclubs.

The Lakers were able to come together on the road last December, going 5-1 on a six-game trip. They are 2-3 on the road this season, but Kobe Bryant said this team is capable of putting together a similar run.

“On the road is where you really come together, thats when you really bond as a unit, Bryant said. “Its us against everybody else. Thats where you really have a chance to gel.

Tracy McGradys status, meanwhile, is in question after he left Saturdays game against Washington with back spasms. McGrady missed 35 games with a back injury last season and was reported to be “very stiff and very sore Sunday.

The Lakers will have to contend with Yao Ming, the Western Conference Player of the Month for November. Yao is averaging 25.5 points and 9.5 rebounds this season and finished with 38 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks in Saturdays victory.

Kwame Brown will spend the most minutes on him, trying to use his size and strength to turn Yao outside when he catches the ball in the post. Andrew Bynum and Ronny Turiaf also will see time and expend fouls trying to match up against Yao.

“We dont want to end up having to double-team Yao any more than (necessary), Jackson said, “because this team does rely on the 3-point shot.

The Lakers came into Monday leading the Pacific Division, even with the Phoenix Suns having won 10 consecutive games. The Lakers opened 12-3 at home and beat three of the Western Conferences elite (Phoenix, Utah, San Antonio) at Staples Center.

Jackson on Saturday cited “a year of playing together, a year of being in the system together as the biggest reason for his teams success, as well as the depth brought by the additions of Maurice Evans and Jordan Farmar.

Ankle update: Bryant was not concerned about the prospect of playing a back-to-back set of games on his sprained right ankle.

“The ankle feels fine, Bryant said. “I actually went out today and practiced and moved around. It felt really good. It actually feels better today than it did yesterday.

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First quarter report card

For all those who remember getting report cards every quarter in school, it’s time to do the same for the Lakers. After playing their 20th game tonight against San Antonio, the Lakers will be a quarter of their way through the season, hard as it is to believe.

If we’re handing out grades, I’ve got two players with A’s so far in Luke Walton and Jordan Farmar. Walton has had a remarkable season considering he figured to back up Vladimir Radmanovic when training camp started. Instead, Walton has become a fixture in the starting lineup and is averaging 12.5 points and shooting 53.6 percent.

Farmar has exceeded all expectations for a player who turned 20 at the end of last month and was a late first-round draft pick. When you looked at the Lakers’ roster before the season, it was hard to figure a way into the rotation for the rookie.

But Farmar is the first guard off the bench most nights and has played ahead of Smush Parker in the fourth quarter of two games. That he is shooting close to 50 percent might be the biggest surprise, considering Farmar comes into games cold off the bench. He has been an effective leader for the second team.

I’d give Kobe Bryant a B so far. The 52-point game against Utah was a statement coming back from knee surgery and Bryant made the switch from the wing to the backcourt for the sake of the team. It’s just hard to forget the Bryant of last season who carried the Lakers for games, weeks and months at a time.

I’ll refrain from giving out other grades – - I do have to see these guys every day – - but if you post your first quarter report card, I’ll make sure it gets up on the site.

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