Lakers 111, Celtics 98

What would you have done on Dec. 31 if someone said they could promise the Lakers would go 8-7 in January? Kwame Brown had just gone down with a severely sprained ankle and Lamar Odom was still trying to get back from a sprained knee ligament. My guess is that almost every Lakers fan would have taken the offer.

After Wednesday’s victory over the Celtics, the Lakers officially clinched the winning month. That in itself is remarkable given everything they endured. They finished January 8-7 after going 10-5 in October/November and 10-6 in December. If you can post a winning record every month of the season, you’re going to wind up with a high playoff seed.

Looking back at my seaon prediction from October, I had the Lakers going 11-4 in October/November, 8-8 in December and 8-7 in January. So they’re about plus-one right now from my projected record of 48-34. We’ll see what February brings; I thought they would go 7-5 before the season started.

* * *

Ronny Turiaf said he suffered some hip pain when Wally Szczerbiak pulled him down in the third quarter and was called for a second-degree flagrant foul. The NBA draws the distinction for a flagrant foul involving “unnecessary and excessive” contact. Turiaf stayed in the game and made 1 of 2 free throws.

* * *

I asked Kobe Bryant afterward how he would describe the ferocious windmill dunk he threw down at the end of the game. He said he was planning on flipping in a reverse layup but was caught a little off guard by how high he elevated. So he dunked the ball instead and earned a spot on every sportscast in the country.

“My legs are back, man,” Bryant said.

* * *

After turning 21 five days ago, Celtics guard Gerald Green got an education from Bryant in Wednesday’s game. But Bryant praised the second-year guard, who finished two points off his career-high with 22. The Celtics selected Green with the No. 18 pick in the 2005 draft.

“I told him, `You have a lot of talent. The important thing is to keep working. Just have tunnel vision,”’ Bryant said. “It’s a tough situation for him here because they’re losing so much. But it’s important for him just to stay focused on what he has to do. I told him if he ever needs anything, track me down. He’s a hell of a talent.”

* * *

There are definitely no guarantees from night to night with Phil Jackson and minutes. Sasha Vujacic started Tuesday in New York with Bryant suspended but played just 1:58 against the Celtics. Jackson yanked him immediately in the second quarter; Vujacic did take a 3-pointer in the short time he played.

That was more than could be said for Brian Cook, who was on the floor for the Lakers late in the fourth quarter against the Knicks. Cook didn’t get off the bench in Wednesday’s game.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

BOSTON–If Kobe Bryant felt as if he was “grounded while sitting in his hotel room and serving a one-game NBA suspension Tuesday night, then how would he describe the feeling in returning with a 43-point barrage against the Boston Celtics?

“It felt like I was finally able to run out in the yard, Bryant said, “and just run a little wild.

It was more like Bryant ran roughshod Wednesday in the Lakers 111-98 victory. After not taking a shot in the first eight minutes, Bryant could hear “M-V-P chants in this city once so hostile to the Lakers as the final seconds ticked away.

He connected on seven 3-pointers, scored 12 points in the last 6 1-2 minutes as the Lakers finally put away the Celtics and threw down a savage reverse dunk with 1:40 left to cap his one-man show.

The Lakers ended their three-game losing streak at the expense of the Celtics, who lost for the franchise-record-tying 13th consecutive game. Boston has played the last 21 games without star guard Paul Pierce, who is out with a stress reaction in his left foot.

Searching for a silver lining, Boston coach Doc Rivers cited two of his young players and said that if “Gerald Green is a Kobe Bryant and Al Jefferson is whoever you want him to be and youre winning games, youre not going to give a crap about what happened.

Bryant, meanwhile, was able to move past his suspension and deliver the Lakers the first victory on this eight-game trip. He said he was more nervous watching Tuesdays loss to New York on television than he ever would be playing in a game.

With the perspective that came with sitting out, Bryant offered his teammates a reminder to have fun Wednesday. “We tend to get a little too serious on these road trips, Bryant said, “and kind of forget about how much fun the game is.

There also was none of the expected vengeance on Bryants part in returning from suspension. Bryant laid out his intentions before the game and had to be reminded by Lakers coach Phil Jackson to take open shots in the first quarter.

“Its important for us to get back on track. Not for me to necessarily take over the game, Bryant said. “Hopefully we wont need that. Weve got a long trip ahead, its important for everybody to get on track and get into some type of a rhythm if we want to do well on this trip.

The Lakers needed Bryant to finally close the door on the Celtics. He went to the bench with 8:39 remaining and the Lakers leading 91-77 but had to return not even two minutes later as Brian Scalabrine scored seven consecutive points for Boston.

With the lead down to seven points, Bryant returned for the final 6:50. He drove for a layup on his first possession back, buried two 3-pointers from 26 feet and threw down the dunk on Green that left the crowd gasping.

“I just got in a good rhythm, Bryant said, “and was able to put on a good show there.

The Celtics turned to Green, a second-year guard, to try to stop Bryant. Green said after the game, “Its tough when you are in the game and those shots keep going in and “We knew he was kind of upset about the suspension.

Bryant made 13 of 25 shots and approached a triple-double with eight rebounds and eight assists. He hit a spectacular 3-pointer to beat the third quarter buzzer after Bostons Wally Szczerbiak lost the ball with a chance to make it a five-point game.

Bryant also described serving his suspension in the simplest of terms before the game: “I felt like a kid that was grounded. I couldnt go outside and play on the swings. It was terrible.

The Lakers led 35-23 after the first quarter – - with Bryant not taking a shot until the 3:56 mark – - but what should have been an easy night against a Celtics team that hadnt won since Jan. 5 wasnt meant to be.

Bryant went to the bench to start the second quarter but came back after not even two minutes. Sasha Vujacic, Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar all missed 3-pointers for the Lakers, who had no trouble shooting 57 percent in the first quarter.

“Theres some people that might have learned a lesson out of the game tonight, Jackson said, “because the second unit was quick with their shooting, their defense didnt stand and suddenly that 12-point first quarter lead was a tie game.

With Bryant coming back from suspension, Jackson promised before the game to rein in his superstar guard. “My interest is to not let him go off and get too wacky out there, Jackson said, “in case hes got retribution in mind.

Jackson proved it with 4:00 left in the second quarter. Bryant hit the side of the backboard on a jumper and Jackson called for seldom-used guard Shammond Williams to replace Bryant.

The Lakers now have to find a victory on this trip to replace the one they wanted against New York but were denied by Bryants suspension.

“We gave up a game last night, so we have to get back two, Jackson said. “That means we have to win somewhere else.

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Saturday report

Most Saturday practices are pretty sleepy affairs. Today was a different story. We were greeted by 40 reporters who were at the practice facility to sit down with Kobe Bryant and talk about his second-generation Nike basketball shoe. Nike arranged the session for Bryant with reporters from Asia as well as sneaker magazines in the U.S.

* * *

Lakers coach Phil Jackson was pretty hard on Andrew Bynum after Friday’s loss to Charlotte, saying that the Bobcats basically took advantage of him. Bynum finished with 11 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks – - a very, very good line for a 19-year-old big man – - but Jackson was disappointed Bynum couldn’t get established early.

The Lakers wanted to feed the ball to Bynum and let him use his height advantage against Emeka Okafor. In Jackson’s mind, that meant either making plays with his passing or hitting shots. It never quite materialized that way; Bynum scored the Lakers’ first basket of the game but couldn’t convert the other times he got the ball.

“Right off the bat, they just started shoving him around off the lane,” Jackson said. “He couldnt even get a shot off. He had the ball taken away from him like three out of the first six times he touched the ball in the lane.

“He still got some points and his stats were good, but theres so many missed opportunities in the course of that game – - lob passes to him and opportunities where rebounds presented themselves and he couldnt fulfill it.’

The play most people will remember from Friday was the Bynum shot that Okafor blocked with 1:45 left in regulation. There’s no disputing that Bynum went up too softly in a one-point game but he did come back and make an immediate play at the defensive end. Gerald Wallace tried to go up into Bynum’s arms and was blocked.

“His presence is such a big factor in there and how to use that is so important,” Jackson said. “Hes still learning how to do that.

It’ll be interesting to see how Bynum comes back 36 hours later for a game against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.

* * *

Bryant wasn’t overly concerned with how many minutes (50) he played Friday. He played the first 15:30 before going to the bench for a breather and played all but 5.2 seconds in the second half plus overtime. Such is the process of hammering out a rotation now that Lamar Odom is back from a knee injury.

“I dont think about it,” Bryant said. “When Im out, I just try to get my rest. When its time to go back in, its time to go back in. Its not really part of my thought process.

* * *

One thing I forgot to mention in Friday’s post is that the Lakers’ home losses to Charlotte, Milwaukee and Washington all have shared a common thread. All three of those teams beat the Lakers in the first game of a long road trip. You should never underestimate how hard teams play when they first come out on the road.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–So many times this season, the Lakers have turned to youth and inexperience as an excuse when they have lost games to teams whose only destiny is a spot in the NBA draft lottery.

That was before Saturdays practice, when Lakers coach Phil Jackson was in no mood to sugarcoat his teams second loss of the season to the Charlotte Bobcats.

“I hope theyre doing bad, Jackson said. “They should be because were really disappointed. It was another overtime game but the fact that we got beat that badly in overtime (15-6) when its our court, that was disappointing.

Jackson harped on the 15 turnovers that Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom combined for in Fridays loss. The coach also showed his players tape of the Bobcats 11-1 run late in the third quarter, which erased what had been a seven-point Lakers lead.

“Thats really the point, Jackson said, “where an experienced team knows how theyre going to take care of business and does the right thing.

The Lakers have now lost two games to Charlotte and New Orleans, as well as games to Memphis, Portland, Seattle and Milwaukee. As for a silver lining, at least the Lakers dont have to worry about an NBA Finals pairing with the Bobcats.

“The positive is that we dont play none of those teams in the playoffs, Bryant said. “Thats a good thing. All the teams that we tend to play well against are future playoff opponents.

“Thats somewhat encouraging. Wed like to be getting better in those games instead of losing those games. The more experience we gain, the more well realize the importance.

Theres also the small matter of a nationally televised game today against San Antonio at Staples Center. The Lakers could sweep the abbreviated three-game season series for the first time since 1997-98.

“I just want to see us play a good game, Jackson said. “Were having some flat spells where we stop executing, we stop moving the ball and we start standing around and turnovers ensue on that. We just need to get that clarified.

Also: Jackson said the teams trainers were encouraged that Luke Walton has not experiencing significant swelling with his moderately sprained right ankle. “Were hopeful that its going to be a limited amount of time, Jackson said. . . .

With Odom returning from a sprained knee ligament, forward Radmanovic did not play Friday. Jackson said Radmanovic aggravated his sprained right hand during warm-ups for the game. . . .

Kwame Brown did some light shooting at practice and said of his sprained left ankle: “It felt OK, but I felt myself cheating with my right side. Brown is not expected back for at least another week. . . .

The Lakers need a victory today to avoid losing consecutive home games for the first time all season.

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Bobcats 106, Lakers 97

As he has a couple of times this season, Phil Jackson brought up the fact Friday that he played on a championship team with the New York Knicks in the 1972-73 season that lost twice to a Philadelphia 76ers team that finished 9-73, the worst record in NBA history.

It’s a nice way of putting in perspective that any team can win on any given night in the NBA.

There are only a couple of problems with that statement. No. 1: The Knicks beat Philly six times that season and lost only once. No. 2: Nobody expects the 2006-07 Lakers to win an NBA title. No. 3: Come on, arent the Lakers are supposed to beat the freaking Charlotte Bobcats?

Not this season, at least. We know Jackson is never going to hear the end of the Bobcats season sweep if he happens to get a phone call Saturday from Michael Jordan, whos the managing member of basketball operations for the third-year franchise.

Give Jackson credit for being entertaining, even after a terrible loss. Here was his take on overtime, especially after Matt Carroll banked in that 3-pointer:

“I think all the shoulders sank right after that. I called an early timeout to try to get them going again. I saw the frustration was just too heavy. Wed made too many mistakes to that point to rectify ourselves . . . rectify the situation. I dont think you can rectify yourself. You can make a rectum of yourself, which we were tonight.

If the Lakers are going to watch tape, Id recommend the start of the game, when they fell behind 11-2 and made the rest of the first half an uphill climb, and the third quarter when they could have built a double-digit lead but didnt.

The Lakers led 68-61 with 3:33 left in the third with the Bobcats forced to call timeout. Charlotte came out of the timeout and immediately got a dunk off a pick-and-roll with Jeff McInnis feeding Emeka Okafor.

Kobe Bryant missed a 3-pointer and Gerald Wallace scored on a run out to make it a three-point game. Maurice Evans then couldnt get a drive to drop and Wallace spun around Bryant and scored as part of a three-point play to tie the game at 68-68.

“That overtime doesnt surprise me, Lamar Odom said, “when you think that we had a 68-61 lead in the third quarter and we were playing well. It seemed like momentum was going our way and then it was just the opposite, just a reversal.

“Until we start playing consistent, playing the same way all the time, well be up and down, up and down, up and down.

It would be pretty amazing to see the Lakers lose to Charlotte on Friday and then take a three-game season sweep over the Spurs on Sunday. The Lakers have a quick turnaround with only about 36 hours before the 12:30 p.m. start Sunday.

* * *

The Bobcats won even though they made one of the dumbest mistakes Ive ever seen at the end of regulation. Its a three-point game with 9.6 seconds left and you know that the only Lakers player to hit a shot in the fourth quarter is Bryant.

Of course, thats the perfect time for Carroll to decide to switch and let Wallace take Bryant when the Lakers guard heads right. Out of the confusion, nobody winds up taking Bryant, who buries the tying 3-pointer and easiest big shot Ive ever seen him get.

“That last possession with Kobe, we were saying of all the people that you dont switch off is that you dont switch on Kobe, Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. “You know what hes going to do – - shoot the ball. [ep

* * *

If not for Bryants 3-pointer at the end of regulation, the Lakers might have gone the final 2:25 without scoring. Bryant certainly was guilty of trying to do too much. He had a shot blocked and then lost the ball. He also missed a jumper over Carroll with 33.9 seconds left.

The Bobcats took a 91-88 lead with 9.6 seconds left on a play that typified the Lakers night. Odom makes a great block on Okafor only to have Wallace get to the ball and stick it in the basket. Good thing, too, because the Lakers might have been able to win on Bryants 3 otherwise.

* * *

It was interesting to see how Jackson opted to use Bryant in Odoms first game back. Bryant normally rests at the start of the second and fourth quarters but didnt in both instances Friday. He played with a group of reserves for the first 3 1-2 minutes of the second quarter before taking a quick breather.

In the second half, Bryant barely sat at all. He came out with 5.2 seconds left in the third quarter but returned to play the entire fourth quarter and all of overtime. As a result, Bryant played 50 out of a possible 53 minutes in the overtime game. A heavy, heavy workload.

The Lakers also opted to use Bryant at the scoring wing position and play Odom in the backcourt much of the game and especially in the fourth quarter. Bryant wound up scoring 23 of the Lakers 48 points in the second half plus overtime. He had five assists but nine turnovers for the night.

With Odom back, Vladimir Radmanovic didnt get off the bench. I wouldnt call this a surprise given how quickly Jackson benched Radmanovic in the second half of the Lakers previous two games but it was remarkable nonetheless.

* * *

Odoms going to need a couple games to get his timing down. He threw one lazy pass just after crossing midcourt that the Bobcats stole and was called for an offensive foul shortly thereafter in the first quarter. Odom also missed a lot of the drives he normally makes.

“I felt a little slow out there, Odom said. “Itll take some time to get the explosion back and things like that, but for the most part it felt good. A little ice, a little rest, Ill go home tonight and get ready for practice tomorrow.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

If one game could sum up everything that has gone wrong for the Lakers this season – - the losses to teams the rest of the NBA treats as road kill, the run of injuries that knows no end – - then Friday nights implosion against the Charlotte Bobcats was it.

The Lakers welcomed back forward Lamar Odom, who missed 21 games with a sprained knee ligament, and then watched Luke Walton go down with a moderately sprained right ankle that will keep him out at least a week.

Then they took a game that was once in control and squandered it 106-97 in overtime, even after being given a chance at redemption thanks to Kobe Bryants tying 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds left in regulation.

It was the Lakers second loss in a month to the Bobcats, who swept the season series and improved to a robust 15-27. The Lakers were outscored 15-6 in overtime, shot 42 percent for the game and committed 21 turnovers.

Maybe the developmental league D-Fenders deserve the next crack when the Lakers play one of the NBAs doormats. The Lakers now have lost twice to Charlotte, twice to New Orleans and once to Memphis and Portland this season.

“Im not as disappointed about the loss as I am about how we played, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “You can play in a loss and sometimes play well enough to feel like that was a heck of a game and we played well. But that was not well played at all.

“We forced the issue. Guys tried to insert their will too hard in the ballgame. We created too many turnovers as a consequence. We werent going to get the calls even though we were trying to force the calls to be made.

Odom said: “You look at our record, you say were right in the midst of everything, right in the pack of wolves. But I dont think we have an identity yet as far as how we want to play every single night, whether the balls going in or not.

The Lakers went the length of the court in the last 9.6 seconds of regulation to force overtime. Matt Carroll picked up Bryant, then thought Gerald Wallace was going to switch as Bryant dribbled to the right side.

Out of the confusion, the Bobcats left Bryant uncovered and he buried a 3-pointer without a hand in his face to tie the game at 91-91 with 1.6 seconds left. Bryant played all but 5.2 seconds in the second half and overtime.

He finished with 32 points on 10-of-24 shooting but also had nine turnovers in 50 minutes. Odom had 12 points but made just 3 of 10 shots and totaled six turnovers. Andrew Bynum finished with 11 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks.

The Lakers had momentum on their side but overtime proved to be a slow fade. Odom was called for an offensive foul, Smush Parker missed a point-blank shot and Odom had a jumper bounce in and out.

As it turned out, Charlotte had a little luck on its side. After Bynum blocked Raymond Felton in the lane, Carroll banked in a 3-pointer to put the Bobcats ahead 96-91 with 2:51 left in overtime.

I think all the shoulders sank right after that, Jackson said. “I just saw frustration. Wed made too many mistakes to that point to rectify the situation.

Bryant tried to create with the Lakers down 97-93 but had the ball stolen by Gerald Wallace. It was not how Bryant would want to remember the game in which he became the youngest player to score 18,000 points in his career.

Walton, meanwhile, was injured with 8:31 left in the third quarter as he went up to contest Adam Morrisons drive to the basket. Walton came down on Emeka Okafors foot in the lane and was in immediate pain.

He was helped to the locker room by trainer Gary Vitti and forward Ronny Turiaf. Walton, who has battled ankle injuries throughout his college and pro career, did not return to the bench.

Jackson said afterward that Walton would miss “a couple games. I dont know how many. But right off the bat, Id say its going to be a week.

Once again, the Lakers were haunted by inexperience. They led 68-61 with 3:33 left in the third quarter but gave up an 11-1 run to Charlotte. Carroll led the Bobcats with 24 points while Okafor finished with 20 points and 18 rebounds.

Jackson once again felt that his team again got caught playing to the level of the other teams record.

“Its very, very frustrating to see us lose to teams that, record-wise, you say, `Well, this record means that and this record means this, Jackson said. “It doesnt mean anything that particular night when you step on the court. Records are off. The game is being played.

After losing 133-124 to Charlotte in triple overtime on Dec. 29, the Lakers had a message in addition to a scouting report on their locker room board beforehand. It read simply “Kick they ass with three exclamation points.

With the Lakers falling behind by as many as 11 points in the first quarter, that message apparently never got through.

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Thursday report

Even with one of the best names in the NBA, Smush Parker is an easy guy to overlook on the Lakers. Just ask yourself if you realized Parker was going to be starting his 125th consecutive game Friday against the Charlotte Bobcats.

Not bad for a guy whos making the minimum salary ($798,112) for a fourth-year player and went undrafted out of Fordham. Parkers also had a pretty good January, averaging 13.1 points, shooting 52.2 percent and making Orlando coach Brian Hill eat his words.

One of the big questions for the second half of the season is how Parker fits into the Lakers future. Will he be a starting guard on a team with championship aspirations or is he best suited to come off the bench?

If Parker projects as a bench player, then the Lakers have to ask if they want to re-sign him. They already have Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic under contract to fill that role next season.

Parker will be looking for money and minutes when he hits the free-agent market this summer. The Lakers could offer him a deal as long as five years for as much as the average player salary ($5.215 million this season).

He has spent two seasons playing in the triangle offense, which is far from the easiest offense to learn. You would have to start over with another guard you bring in, unless you decide Farmar can start in his second year.

The Lakers are over the salary cap for next season but the luxury-tax threshold is the more important consideration. The tax number was $65.42 million this season. Itll probably go up to $68 million or so this summer.

With a payroll of $58 million for next season, the Lakers probably will have $10 million or so to spend. They have four players who will become free agents in Parker, Luke Walton, Chris Mihm and Shammond Williams.

(In addition, they have to crunch numbers accordingly with Andrew Bynum eligible for a big contract extension as of July 1, 2008. This doesnt get mentioned as much as it should given how significant it will be for the Lakers.)

If the Lakers wanted to upgrade at guard, their best bet probably is through a trade. Its hard to find a more appealing player on the list of free agents who would be willing to sign for the $5.215 million midlevel exception.

Of course, Parker just as easily could leave if another team were to make him an offer for midlevel money or for a sizable chunk of it.

One other thing: The Lakers arent obligated to use their midlevel exception on Walton or Parker. They control the free-agent rights to both players – - in Waltons case the full Bird rights and the early Bird rights to Parker.

Its a drag, of course, to think about these things when youre trying to enjoy a game. But its the reality of the situation facing Parker and the Lakers the rest of the season. No matter what, though, Parkers proven he belongs in the NBA.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–The Charlotte Bobcats have been in business for all of 2 1-2 seasons, compiling a 58-147 record in that time, while barely meeting the NBAs minimum team salary of $39.85 million this season.

Yet its the Bobcats who have given the Lakers “hell in the words of Kobe Bryant. They took down the Lakers 133-124 in triple-overtime at home on Dec. 29 and will be at Staples Center tonight for the rematch.

It will be a last stand of sorts for the Lakers, who have dropped more games to doormat teams than they care to remember. The past month has seen losses to Charlotte, Memphis and New Orleans, teams with a combined record of 41-84.

“Our thing all year is we know we can play with the best teams, Luke Walton said. “But to be one of the best teams, weve got to beat these sub-.500 teams. Were aware of that and weve been talking about it, so weve got to start making it happen now.’

Lakers coach Phil Jackson borrowed from one of his players in describing the string of recent losses as “haunting the team.

“For us, its just going out there and playing hard all the time – - all the time – - and understanding that were trying to play for something bigger, Bryant said. “If we can keep that in our minds eye, we should be OK.

“But its always about effort when you play against teams like (Charlotte) because theyre going to come out and theyre going to bring it. In the NBA, any team can beat you on any given night if youre not ready.

The Bobcats now have beaten the Lakers twice in Charlotte and nearly won last season at Staples Center. Brevin Knight missed two free throws with 11 seconds remaining and the Lakers escaped with a 99-98 victory.

While the Bobcats could be down four big men tonight, the Lakers will welcome the return of Lamar Odom, who missed 21 games with a sprained knee ligament. The Lakers have given up 110 points per game this month without Odom or Kwame Brown.

Star gazing: For the ninth time, Bryant has been selected to the All-Star Game. He received the third-most votes of any player (behind LeBron James and Yao Ming) and will start for the Western Conference in the Feb. 18 game in Las Vegas.

“Its going to be a lot of energy, Bryant said. “All-Star weekend normally is a lot of energy, and then you put it in Vegas, its going to be through the roof.

Bryant was asked if this might be the worst-played All-Star Game simply because of the late hours everyone will be keeping in Sin City.

“It could be the best played, Bryant countered, “just because you dont want to have an All-Star Game in Vegas and go out there and have somebody wear you out.

Big bucks: The Lakers remain the second most valued franchise in the NBA after the New York Knicks, according to Forbes magazines annual report released Thursday. Forbes estimated the Lakers value at $568 million, up from $529 million last season.

By returning to the playoffs, the Lakers revenues were estimated at $167 million, only $3 million shy of the estimated revenue from the 2003-04 season before the Shaquille ONeal trade.

Also: Forward Ronny Turiaf missed practice Thursday to get a new visa. Turiaf lost his passport and was heading to Tijuana, Mexico, to re-enter the country, Jackson said.

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Wednesday report

For all that you’ve read about Kobe Bryant and his insane 5:30 a.m. workouts in the summer comes this revelation from Wednesday’s practice: Bryant actually loves fast food and hasn’t changed his eating habits even as he has ascended to become arguably the best player in basketball.

“My teammates tell me all the time, `You must have like some secret potion or something because it doesnt make any sense,” Bryant said. “Because I just eat junk food and run all day. Im a bad example.’

Bryant told a story in which Samaki Walker once chastised him for eating McDonald’s or Carl’s Jr. when they were teammates. To test out the Bryant theory, I went to lunch at El Pollo Loco for lunch with Lakers spokesman John Black and then straight to LA Fitness. So far, so good.

* * *

Phil Jackson got some laughs with his answer to a question about how Lamar Odom will help the Lakers when he returns Friday against Charlotte. It started out as predictable as you would expect.

“He’s our best rebounder,” Jackson said. “We’ve been getting killed on the boards. That’s such an important part of the game, there’s such value on possession of the ball.”

Then Jackson couldn’t resist a little jab: “He’ll help us turn the ball over. Lamar does that.”

Of course, Jackson came back to the positive: “And his speed in transition is always good because the best part of his game is the defensive rebound/power out/offensive transition game.”

* * *

Bryant on Andrew Bynum and how good he can be in two or three years: “I think it depends entirely on him and what he wants to do and the tenacity that he wants to bring every day. If hes determined to be one of the elite players in the league, he can do that. He has the gifts to do it. Its just a matter of if he wants it or not.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–Until Kwame Brown returns from a sprained left ankle in another week or two, the Lakers can put off deciding whether 19-year-old center Andrew Bynum should continue starting or come off the bench.

For his part, Bynum clearly believes he is best served starting. He said as much at practice Wednesday: “When I start, I think Im more effective than when I come off the bench.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said such a decision was too far away to consider right now. Jackson also is unlikely to give the opinion of the NBAs youngest player much weight whenever that decision is made.

“Hes not old enough to determine it, Jackson said. “Theres a few guys in this game that do have that ability to dictate that. But its up to coachs distinction as to how the team functions.

“We really want to put defense as a priority in this team and Andrew has to bring that defense along with his offensive game. We think hes making progress all the time, so thats good.

Jackson would like the Lakers to be something more than the NBAs 26th ranked team defensively, giving up 103.1 points on average, and Brown brings size and strength inside. Jackson also believes the second team looks more for Bynum than the starters.

The Lakers are 16-9 with Bynum starting and 11-6 with him as a reserve. Bynum is averaging 9.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and playing 25 minutes as a starter compared with 6.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 15.4 minutes off the bench.

Its a moot point for the time being. Brown sat out practice Wednesday as he continues to recover from the Dec. 31 ankle injury. Jackson said: “I dont know whether its a week or two weeks or whenever Kwame comes back.

Air Sasha: The Lakers ended Wednesdays practice on a thunderclap of a play. Sasha Vujacic – - yes, the 200-pound Vujacic who loves to shoot 3-pointers – - drove baseline and dunked over both Bynum and Lamar Odom.

All Kobe Bryant could do was fall to the court laughing and head to the locker room joking about how cold the devil must be. Bynum pleaded his case to reporters that he actually blocked Vujacics dunk into the basket.

“It was the most surprising dunk Ive ever seen, Bryant said. “Weve been on him since hes been here to go to the basket hard. . . . I have to remind him sometimes; I say, `Sasha, youre taller than I am.

Vegas vacation: Bynum said he would welcome the chance to play on the team of second-year players as part of the Rookie Challenge at All-Star weekend. Then again, he wasnt overly concerned about being selected.

“It really doesnt matter if I make it or not, Bynum said. “Ill be an All-Star in the future.

The NBA will announce starters today for the Feb. 18 game in Las Vegas. Bryant is expected to be voted a starter for the ninth time.

Page turner: Special assistant coach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar presented the players and coaching staff with copies of his new book “On the Shoulders of Giants about the Harlem Renaissance.

Abdul-Jabbar will sign copies of the book Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. with Spike Lee at the Borders at 2 Penn Plaza in New York before the Lakers-Knicks game.

Also: Forward Lamar Odom reported no problems with his injured right knee and said, “Ill be playing on Friday.

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Tuesday report

Not much extra from Tuesday’s practice other than the following quote from Kobe Bryant about what Lamar Odom’s return will mean for him.

“It helps me a lot,” Bryant said, “because now I dont have to get the ball and bring it up and create for others and then get it back and then score and rebound because he does a lot of that stuff. So he makes my job a lot easier.

Chris Mihm was working out at the practice facility. If you noticed, Mihm has been sitting behind the bench at recent home games. That’s because he can finally drive to Staples Center. He still has to wear a protective boot on his ankle but can ditch it for a couple of hours each day. So he was working out Tuesday in an air cast.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–While Lamar Odom was on the practice court Tuesday soaring for alley-oop dunks and hitting spinning hook shots, Kwame Brown was in the trainers room with a sprained left ankle that wouldnt cooperate.

As a result, the Lakers took a split decision in the injury department. They still expect Odom to return from a sprained knee ligament Friday against Charlotte but will have to wait awhile longer for Brown.

Although he would like Brown back Sunday against San Antonio, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he wasnt expecting his injured center to play until the Lakers leave next week on an eight-game road odyssey.

One problem: The Lakers play four games in five nights to start the trip. Jackson speculated that Brown might return for the second set of back-to-back games against Indiana and Washington beginning Feb. 2.

“Were optimistic about Kwame, Jackson said. “We dont think hell be back on Friday, obviously, but we think that on this road trip hell be able to probably get back on the floor.

The news was better for Odom, who was surprisingly active in his first practice since suffering the knee injury on Dec. 12. While reporters were in the gym, Odom dunked, blocked a shot, hit the spinning hook and finished the alley-oop.

“Its been long enough, Odom said. “Ive tried to wait until my leg was really stable and strong. So Im confident. Im confident about making moves, about driving, about dunking the ball.

“I guess thats the biggest part in coming back from injury is that you want to go out there with your confidence, having confidence in your body. Right now, I have confidence in my body.

Kobe Bryant said Odom looked “really, really good. Jackson said he was pleased with how well Odom reacted on plays. Odom sat out his 21st game Monday since the injury; the Lakers have gone 12-9 without him.

Brown, meanwhile, took part in some full-court drills before stopping when his ankle flared up. Brown said he struggled with jumping and pushing off his left foot and thought he might scale back his workouts the next two days.

“I couldnt really jump and move like I should, so its still a little ways to go, Brown said.

Missing man: Forward Vladimir Radmanovic played just 2:49 in the second half Monday and 43 seconds in the second half Saturday. Now Radmanovic is facing an uncertain role once Odom returns and Brian Cook resumes coming off the bench.

Radmanovic missed all four shots he took Monday and finished scoreless in 13 minutes against Golden State. He was the Lakers major free-agent acquisition last summer but is averaging 4.8 points and shooting 29.5 percent in January.

“We just want to see Vlade make better choices on the floor that will give him a better opportunity to succeed, Jackson said.

After watching Radmanovic bury three 3-pointers in last weeks victory over San Antonio, Jackson said he told the 6-foot-10 forward: `Youre the difference-maker in ballgames for us.

But Jackson also said Radmanovic has been seized by an “anxiousness to score. There will be competition for minutes soon coming from Ronny Turiaf as well; Jackson has been forced to use Turiaf as a backup center with Brown out.

“A lot of times, it might not be the right time to take that shot, Jackson added. “Most of the time, the type of shots he can take, he can get any time he wants to in the clock because hes got such range on his shooting.

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Lakers 108, Warriors 103

This is perhaps overdue for some of you, but the time has come to ask if Vladimir Radmanovic is going to get it together. If you got up during the third quarter Monday, you might have missed the 2:49 Radmanovic played in the second half. This follows his 43-second run in the second half Saturday against the Hornets.

I bring this up because Radmanovics window of opportunity is going to shrink big-time as soon as Lamar Odom returns from his sprained knee ligament, which the Lakers are hoping will come Friday against Charlotte. Even if he isnt logging 40 minutes right away, Odom is going to take away significant playing time.

Remember when Odom first got hurt on Dec. 12? Lakers coach Phil Jackson decided to start Radmanovic in his place. That experiment ended after four games. Here are Radmanovics numbers in the 21 games since Odom was injured: 7.1 points, 39.8 percent shooting, 18.6 minutes.

Radmanovic finished scoreless with two turnovers against Golden State, missed all four shots he took and played 13:22. He checked in with 9:24 left in the third quarter after Brian Cook picked up his fourth foul. I looked at the writer sitting next to me and said, “Looks like were going to see a lot of Vlad.

Not so much, after all. Radmanovic missed a 3-pointer and bricked a shot after Kobe Bryant gave him the ball cutting the lane. Maybe it was a coincidence, but the Warriors started a 15-1 run with Radmanovic on the floor. He was called for his second foul as Baron Davis drove to the basket with 6:35 left.

Then came a “space cadet moment. Maurice Evans headed to the scorers table as the players lined up for free throws. Radmanovic was so slow to realize Evans was coming for him (with Luke Walton sliding over to play power forward) that Evans almost had to tell him face to face.

He didnt play again the rest of the night. Jackson wasnt asked about Radmanovic but did include this comment in his postgame remarks: “I felt Vlade didnt play with a purpose I was looking for.

Radmanovics struggles seem to go deeper than a player with a hand injury. He has had moments this season – - the 3-pointers he hit against San Antonio, as one example – - but you have to wonder what his role is going to be once Odom and Kwame Brown return.

Brian Cook will come off the bench and Jackson will get Ronny Turiaf minutes at power forward. Jackson acknowledged that he played Radmanovic ahead of Cook earlier this season for the sake of familiarizing him with the triangle offense. Will that be the case again?

If you want scoring off the bench, you go with Cook. If you want toughness, you go with Turiaf. What do you do with Radmanovic? Now remember that the Lakers made a $30 million investment in Radmanovic through the 2010-2011 season. Thats so far in the future, Barack Obama could be in his third year as president.

* * *

Give some credit to Sasha Vujacic for drawing a big three-shot foul just before Bryant returned in the fourth quarter. Instead of being down six points, the Lakers only were down three after Vujacic hit the free throws. He sold the foul well, too, falling to the floor after contact was made.

It helped atone for a turnover Vujacic had at the end of the first quarter. The Lakers were trying to set up for a final shot with Bryant resting on the bench when Baron Davis stole the ball from Vujacic. Davis flipped in a lay-up at the other end an instant before the buzzer sounded.

It also was important for the Lakers starters to come back strong when they returned to finish the first half. That has been a trouble spot the past couple of games but the starters erased an eight-point deficit. Bryant was aggressive at both ends, attacking for a reverse lay-up and stealing a pass as the Lakers played pressure defense.

* * *

Andrew Bynum finished with 10 points – - all in the first quarter – - a career-high 15 rebounds and four blocks. He did a little studying before the game as well.

“I looked at film last night and how (Hornets center) Tyson Chandler was rebounding against us and I kind of studied the way he was doing it. I tried to mimic it, Bynum said. “What he does is that he watches the ball, he always keeps moving.

“Sometimes I get kind of stagnant out there. Im just kind of standing straight up and my guy pretty much has his arm on me. Today I was moving around and trying to watch the ball and it worked out for me.

* * *

Funny moment before the game: Bryant was putting on his Western Conference All-Star jersey to tape a TV promo for the game. It was a red-and-gold uniform, which led Bryant to joke, “I just got traded to the Cavs.

Ive also been impressed at how rookie guard Jordan Farmar doesnt shy away from his teammates. After coming through late – - but only after missing his first eight shots – - Luke Walton was surrounded by reporters at his locker.

One question to Walton was what got into him late. Farmar shouted from the next locker over, “Jesus Christ.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

There has to be a middle ground for the Lakers, between Kobe Bryant taking over or getting everyone involved, between Luke Walton missing every shot before scoring the games two biggest baskets, between winning at home and losing on the road.

All the same, the Lakers had to like where they stood Monday night after beating the Golden State Warriors 108-103 at Staples Center to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season.

Bryant scored 42 points – - 14 in the fourth quarter – - on the one-year anniversary of his 81-point game against Toronto. It was Walton, though, who probably made history with the greatest 2-for-10 shooting game the NBA has ever seen.

Walton missed his first eight shots of the game and was so tentative in the third quarter that he passed the ball on to teenage center Andrew Bynum with a tick left on the 24-second clock rather that put up a shot himself.

But Walton came back in the fourth quarter and hustled his way into two baskets in the last two minutes. The first came after Maurice Evans had his drive blocked and Walton chased down the loose ball and pushed in a lay-up.

On the next possession, Walton came up with the offensive rebound after Bryant missed a 3-pointer. He tossed in a shot with 1:11 remaining as the Lakers went in front 103-101. It proved to be the go-ahead basket of the game.

“I had a long break from the third to the fourth and I kind of settled down a little bit and got back under control, Walton said. “I got a couple bounces that came my way and once I put the ball through the hole once, it kind of got a little easier.

Walton finished with eight points, seven rebounds and five assists, never mind that he couldnt hit a shot in the first 29 minutes he played.

“He was carrying his heart on his sleeve out there, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He thought everybody was going to cry for him for a second. He couldnt get anything to go in for him and then he got a couple baskets at the end, which kind of redeemed his night.

“That was good. We always say to players, `Dont let your offense affect your game, but its hard not to in this game.

Jackson showed confidence in bringing Walton back with 5:51 left. Golden State, meanwhile, lost guard Baron Davis to a calf injury with 4:44 to play. Davis replacement, Sarunas Jasikevicius, had two turnovers in the last 90 seconds.

The Lakers improved to 19-4 at home after disappointing losses to Dallas and New Orleans on the road. They beat Golden State for the sixth consecutive time since Jacksons return as coach and overcame a season-high 24 turnovers.

“Were a young team and we have ups and downs, Walton said, “but once we start going down, we correct it quickly and we get back on track.

If everything goes accordingly, the Lakers also played their final game without injured starters Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown. The two will practice today in the hope of returning Friday against Charlotte.

Jackson said he was glad the injuries didnt prove “insurmountable but said of bringing Odom and Brown back: “Its an adjustment period obviously for us. We hope we can meld them together.

Bryant returned with 9:23 to play and scored nine straight points. He drilled jumpers over Mickael Pietrus and got to the line by drawing a fifth foul on Pietrus. For the night, Bryant went 11 of 22 from the field and 16 of 19 at the foul line.

Golden States Al Harrington, acquired in a trade from Indiana last week, described Bryant as a “one-man wrecking crew. The Lakers trailed by as many as six points in the fourth quarter, with Bryant saying he knew something had to be done.

“I had to kind of take control of the game a little bit, Bryant said. “I couldnt sit back and wait any longer. I had to kind of attack a little bit more.

It has been all-or-nothing for Bryant in recent games. At one extreme, Bryant had just three points, all at the foul line, in the first half of Saturdays loss to the Hornets. At the other extreme, Bryant had one assist in 39 minutes Monday.

“Theres this either/or were getting into where either Kobes like a facilitator or hes going into scoring mode, Jackson said. “Its not quite that way. Its not that cut and dried.

“He can find his way (to score) out of the offense and also the other players can find their way to score out of the offense.

“A lot of the focus from the media has come about, `Wow, Kobes really including everybody. Thats what a system offense is all about. Its just part of what we do.

After ranking among the leagues best shooter the first two months, Walton has hit the skids recently. After Monday, Walton is shooting just 40.5 percent overall and 23.1 percent on 3-pointers in January.

“He looks like hes aiming the ball rather than just shooting it right now, Jackson said. “Hes trying to make sure it goes in and doing a lot of things that are structural things you work on in the summertime.

“Hell loosen up. Its just a phase, its just a slump like a batter goes through, and itll come back. We have confidence.

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Sunday report

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what’s up with the Lakers today: Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown have been ruled out of Monday’s game against Golden State. The hope is they’ll practice with the team all week and possibly return for Friday’s game with Charlotte.

The Lakers will be looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season. Baron Davis will be back for the Warriors after serving a one-game suspension for taking a swing at Quinton Ross. Al Harrington will be a tough matchup for the Lakers without Odom. The Lakers could give up 103.1 points to the Warriors and still come out ahead. Kobe Bryant now has been called for seven technicals this season.

One more thing and then it’s back to watching football. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how the NBA standings shape up using that time-tested formula of subtracting home losses from road victories.

Western Conference

1. Dallas +11
2. Phoenix +10
3. Utah +9
4. Houston +7
5. San Antonio +6
6. Lakers +4
7. Minnesota 0
8. Denver -1
9. Clippers -2
9. Portland -2
11. Golden State -4
11. New Orleans -4
13. Seattle -5
14. Sacramento -6
15. Memphis -11

Eastern Conference

1. Cleveland +6
2. Washington +4
2. Detroit +4
4. Indiana +3
5. Milwaukee +1
5. Orlando +1
5. Toronto +1
8. Miami 0
8. Chicago 0
10. New Jersey -3
11. New York -4
11. Philadelphia -4
13. Atlanta -5
14. Boston -6
15. Charlotte -7

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Hornets 113, Lakers 103

If the quick math I did after the game is correct, the Lakers are now giving up 103.1 points per game. The numbers are admittedly skewed by a couple of big games – - giving up 147 to Washington in OT and 133 to Charlotte in triple OT – - but Saturday night was another example that the Lakers are not a good defensive team.

For comparison, the Lakers gave up fewer points on average when they finished 34-48 in 2004-05. The difference is they spent little time talking about defense that season under coach Rudy Tomjanovich and stressed defense from Day 1 of training camp this season.

Im not sure there was one play that summed up the Lakers defensive effort Saturday but there were definitely a few. Rasual Butler got free from Kobe Bryant and knocked down two 3-pointers in the first quarter with the Lakers slow to rotate to cover him.

Butler is a stand-alone shooter who missed jumpers the rest of the quarter whenever any Laker got within three feet of him. He hit two more 3s in the last three minutes and now has gone for 22 and 20 points in two games against the Lakers this season.

If there was a moment that stood out for you, I’d love to hear it. Here’s a couple of others that I circled in the notebook:

Early in the second quarter, Vladimir Radmanovic left to double Desmond Mason on one play, which led to an open lay-up for Linton Johnson. Either Radmanovic made a bad decision leaving Johnson or the Lakers once again were too slow to rotate.

The second quarter also featured a stretch where the Hornets made nine straight shots. One of those came after Bryant missed a jumper. Devin Brown went end to end for an uncontested lay-up. The Hornets went from eight points down to eight up in winning the quarter 34-22.

Barely a minute into the second quarter and the Hornets ran out on the Lakers. Jackson has talked about defensive retreat being an area for improvement. Instead, you had Brown lobbing an alley-oop to Mason, who dunked while being shoved by Brian Cook.

It was Cooks fourth foul and ended his night. He played only the first 1:15 of the second half. Vladimir Radmanovic didnt even last that long. He was on the floor just 43 seconds before picking up his third foul and sending West to the line.

In a truly weird moment, Radmanovic tossed the ball to a fan while referee Tony Brown was trying to retrieve it for Wests free throws. Radmanovic was gone and Jackson had to play Ronny Turiaf and Andrew Bynum together.

The Lakers used four players in all – - Cook, Radmanovic, Turiaf and Luke Walton in trying to defend West. Cook was the first guy out of the locker room afterward; Radmanovics night was memorable for smiling at a fan who mocked his hair.

Getting back Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown from injury is going to make a difference defensively, but Im not sure how much. Never, ever forget the stat that the Lakers are 16-2 if they can just hold a team under 100 points.

* * *

Now the Lakers have to win Monday night against Golden State to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season. I asked Jackson before the game how important it was that the Lakers had not lost more than two consecutive games in the seasons first half.

“Its really important, Jackson said. “The key when you get to the upper echelon is to say, `Were going to stop this bleeding immediately, and one game might be it.

* * *

The technical foul Bryant got in the third quarter was his seventh of the season. It takes 16 to earn a one-game suspension and Bryant has been picking up technicals with greater frequency. He got one Saturday when he made a steal and went in for a lay-up but didn’t get an and-one foul call on Brown. Bryant voiced his frustration and referee Ron Garretson called the technical.

It wound up being a momentum-changing call, too. The Lakers had climbed within three points with Bryant’s basket. The technical free throw made it 70-66 and the Hornets scored two more baskets to make it an eight-point game.

Another huge shot was Jannero Pargo’s 3-pointer coming after Jordan Farmar missed two free throws that could have given the Lakers a lead with 37.6 seconds left in the third. Yes, Bryant did answer with a 3 at the other end, but Pargo’s shot accounted for a five-point swing in the game.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY–Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a miserable night.

The Lakers played their part to perfection Saturday night in the basketball revival of “Oklahoma! They took the stage against a New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets team that hadnt sniffed .500 in weeks and left with yet another inexplicable loss.

So went this trip to the land where the corn is as high as an elephants eye. The Lakers were left feeling smaller than a snail after losing 113-103 to the NBAs lowest-scoring team. Only twice in the previous 21 games had the Hornets even scored 100 points.

The Lakers were out of answers after reaching the midpoint of their season with a 26-15 record. They have been good enough to beat the Western Conferences top four teams but also bad enough to lose to four of its five worst teams.

Maurice Evans, who scored a career-high 23 points, voiced the frustration felt across the locker room. Only three days after winning at San Antonio – - where the Spurs were all but invincible the last two seasons – - the Lakers fell to a 16-23 Hornets team.

“If we take care of business and we win the games were supposed to, were sitting at the top of the league easy, Evans said. “Thats the frustrating thing about it. Were still in a great position. Were still ahead of the curve.

“But its like were fighting and fighting and fighting and then we shoot ourselves in the foot and make it difficult and take two steps back. Weve got to be more focused and play together.

The Lakers added another bad loss to a ledger that already included games against Seattle, Portland, Charlotte and Memphis. The Lakers also lost to the Hornets on Dec. 6 but that at least was before Chris Paul suffered a severe ankle sprain.

As it was, the Hornets were playing their second game with David West (26 points) and Bobby Jackson (15 points) back from injuries. The Hornets scored 59 points in the first half and led by as many as 13 points in the third quarter before holding on late.

Now consider that the Hornets came into Saturday averaging 89.9 points per game. They left having scored 23 more points than that against a Lakers team that stressed defense from Day 1 in training camp.

“Our defense is obviously not very good right now, Evans said. “Weve got to learn to trust one another on both ends of the floor. I think that thats evident in why we lose certain games, especially to teams that arent as talented as we are.

Case in point: The Hornets hit nine consecutive shots and scored 34 points in the second quarter. Another example: Rasual Butler connected on two 3-pointers in the final three minutes when the Lakers were slow to rotate to him.

“They just played better than we did, Kobe Bryant said. “We battled back in certain situations. They just played better. They deserved to win.

The Hornets were playing the second game of a back-to-back set after losing to San Antonio. The Lakers had all day Friday to get here from Dallas and an off night to rest. It didnt matter as the rain turned to snow Saturday night in the state capital.

“It seems like our focus is a lot sharper and were able to sustain it against a San Antonio, Evans said, “but it seems like we have more mental lapses when we play teams like tonight.

In spite of it all, the Lakers had a chance to win in the final 2:25. They went into a timeout down 102-99 and came out of it to watch Jackson miss a 3-pointer. Bryant drove to the basket at the other end but had his lay-up blocked by Butler.

Butler buried a 3-pointer at the other end to give the Hornets a six-point lead. Bryant missed a 3-pointer of his own and West knocked down a 13-foot fadeaway to make it 107-99 with 1:27 to play. It was gone in 58 seconds for the Lakers.

“Giving them 113 points, thats a problem, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “Not having a chance down the stretch, thats not smart on our part.

Bryant had only three points at halftime – - all at the foul line – - but led the Lakers back in the third quarter by scoring 14 points. He made only 2 of 8 shots in the fourth quarter, though, and finished with 23 points on 7-of-22 shooting and seven assists.

Butler had 20 points and hit 4 of 7 3-pointers as the Hornets won for the fourth time in five games. Smush Parker was the only other Laker in double figures with 13 points. The Lakers were out-rebounded 46-37.

The Lakers missed injured starters Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom in the worst way and were left with a funny feeling as they exited the Ford Center. Nothing was going their way.

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Dallas 114, Lakers 95

The less said about Thursday nights loss is probably the better. The second game of a back-to-back set is always an adventure and even more so when the game starts at 8:48 p.m. local time to accommodate TNT. That definitely doesnt favor the team thats already tired to begin with.

The one thing about the NBA is theres always another game around the corner. In this case, its Saturday night in Oklahoma City. The Lakers will reach the midpoint of their season as well the midpoint of Phil Jacksons three-year project to rebuild the team. I wrote a little about that for Friday.

Its only 205 miles from Dallas to Oklahoma City, so Im going to be driving it Friday morning. Sometime around 11 a.m., I figure Ill cross the state line. Its a part of the country Ive never seen and has some symbolism for the season.

Why? This was the Lakers last game in Texas on the schedule and my question for tonight is whether well be back again in the spring.

The Lakers have settled into the fifth spot in the Western Conference standings after 40 games. They could catch and pass San Antonio for third or they could fall behind Houston and into sixth. Its hard to see how they would finish any lower once Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown return.

The fifth spot is probably the most advantageous because it would bring a series against the fourth seed. That probably will be the Northwest Division champion. Utah leads the division with Minnesota four games back and Denver five back.

If the Lakers finish with the better record, they would have home-court advantage. And the Lakers and Jazz already have played two memorable games this season, with Kobe Bryant scoring 52 points in three quarters back on Nov. 30.

The Lakers could wind up with a first-round series against Houston if they climb to third. They also could face the Spurs if they slide to sixth. If Utah could catch and pass San Antonio, the Lakers and Spurs might meet in the first round that way.

Theres still a lot of basketball to play, but you can start to see playoff paths being formed. I remember last season Jackson said that he started to envision the Suns as a first-round opponent as far back as January.

Most likely, the Lakers would have to win a first-round series against the Jazz to bring us all back to Texas. That would come with a matchup against the top-seeded Mavericks in the second round.

Given how Dallas has played at Staples Center – - I think the Lakers are 12-2 all-time against the Mavericks at home – - you have to imagine that as Mark Cubans nightmare series. Forget what happened Thursday; the Lakers know Dallas is beatable.

While were on the subject, Ill also bring up something David Moore from the Dallas Morning News mentioned. His position is that its ridiculous for the NBA to award top-four playoff seeds to division winners given how few division games teams play.

Hes right. In the 82-game regular season, teams only play the other four teams in their division a total of 16 times. So just 19.5 percent of all their games take place within their division. NHL teams play 32 of 82 games within their division. For most MLB teams, its 76 of 162 games (46.9 percent).

* * *

I can’t resist mentioning one stat from Thursday’s debacle: Brian Cook and Vladimir Radmanovic somehow managed to grab only three rebounds between them in nearly 42 1-2 minutes on the court. That’s almost incredible for two players who go between 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10. Then you have Erick Dampier for Dallas finishing scoreless but pulling down 12 rebounds and blocking four shots. Go figure, I guess.

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