Saturday report

If you’re asking me on Feb. 10 just who the Lakers will be playing on Christmas next season, my guess probably would be LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The NBA has exhausted the Lakers-Heat rivalry after three Christmases and the two Kobe/LeBron games last season both made for entertaining viewing. Just as long as they play in L.A., I don’t have a problem.

For some reason, the NBA scheduled both Kobe/LeBron games for the same week. So five days after getting together in Cleveland, we’ll do it all over again at Staples Center. Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn’t have a problem, saying that by playing a team like Detroit once in November and then not again until February, “You forget who those people are, how ugly they look.

How about a little talk about matchups? The Cavaliers play two guards (Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson) opposite LeBron James with Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas the big bodies up front. But Jackson said at Saturday’s practice he isn’t going to have Bryant start the game by guarding James, taking the natural matchup against Hughes instead.

Who guards James? My best guess would be Lamar Odom, who has the length and size to create some problems. Jackson also has to answer the quesiton about whether he wants to keep starting Vladimir Radmanovic at forward. If he does, Odom would take James and Radmanovic would be left to bang with Gooden inside. Another option would be starting Brian Cook in place of Radmanovic.

That would mark one of the most amazing 72-hour turnarounds in the history of sports. After getting benched for discarding his warm-up top in Jackson’s lap, Cook could wind up in the starting lineup. That seems highly unlikely, though, as Cook seems just as overmatched as Radmanovic when it comes to battling a power forward around the basket.

A third option might be playing Odom on Gooden and starting Maurice Evans on James. I’ve wanted to see Evans start a couple of times this season when the matchups have seemed favorable but Jackson seems to prefer to keep him coming off the bench. Evans did just have a great game, scoring 19 points and hitting 7 of 11 shots, against the Raptors.

* * *

One member of the Lakers thought it might be interesting to look up how the team has fared whenever it has had two or more days off to prepare for a game. The Lakers got drilled on Christmas in such a situation and trailed from start to finish Thursday against Detroit after having a two-day break between games.

As it turns out, the Lakers are 3-4 with two or more days off. Maybe it’s just that the losses have felt so crushing, including a home game last month in which Odom returned from a knee injury.

* * *

There’s been a perception that James opened the season tired after playing for USA Basketball at the World Championships and has not played as consistently at the same level as before. The numbers seem to back that up as well, with James averaging 26.4 ppg this season, down from 31.4 ppg last season.

“Hes probably been a little tired,” Bryant said. “He had a long season last year. He had a long summer. Coming into this year, having to shoulder the load again, Im sure hes a little tired. But its just about getting his second wind. Once he gets his second wind, itll be fine.

A little later, Bryant added: “The thing is for Cleveland, its better that he feels it now than later.’

It’s always hard to figure out just how close some of these NBA stars are. Bryant and James have starred in the same Nike commericials and probably will be captains of the USA Basketball team that Beijing Olympics.

“We’ve known each other for a while,” Bryant said. “I’m there for him as I am with all the young fellas, for advice or whatever it may be. They all know that they can come talk to me about whatever.”

* * *

Whenever we head to Toronto for games, we have to clear customs for games. They always ask what your work is and how long you’ll be/were staying. When I told the agent at the airport this morning that I was a sportswriter covering the Lakers, the question I got back was: “So how many gay players are there in the NBA?”

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

CLEVELAND–As long as the Lakers need a victory to break even on this eight-game trip through the Eastern Conference, Kobe Bryant wont have much to say about this afternoons showdown between himself and LeBron James.

“I told you individual matchups dont excite me any more, Bryant said. “Ive played in so many of them, it just doesnt do anything for me.

Maybe that sounds familiar because Bryant has said as much at two previous stops on this trip, when the Lakers earned victories at Washington and Atlanta and Bryant outshined the likes of Gilbert Arenas and Joe Johnson.

At the same time, Bryant can remember watching the battles between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Jordan and Isiah Thomas. He allowed that for fans tuning in to watch himself and James, “I think its something thats very interesting to watch.

This will be just the first act for Bryant and James: They will play again in five days, with the Cavaliers-Lakers game Thursday at Staples Center serving as the lead-in to All-Star weekend.

The Lakers, however, have bigger concerns than watching two of the heirs to Jordans legacy square off. A loss to Cleveland not only would send them home with a 3-5 record on this trip but with their second three-game losing streak of the season.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that recovering from disappointing losses to Detroit and Toronto to beat the Cavaliers would be “the mark of a team thats really got some character.

Walton out: With his sprained right ankle struggling to improve, forward Luke Walton will be re-examined Monday in Los Angeles by specialist Kenneth Jung. Walton wont play today and is likely out through the All-Star break, Jackson said.

Walton, who has missed eight games with the injury, tried to do some running Saturday but said his ankle was still “throbbing whenever he tried to push off it.

Its frustrating not being able to play, Walton said. “I thought I would be able to play on this road trip. Now its just not going to happen.

Lineup changes: Even in a game Friday where Bryant scored 25 points and missed more shots than he made, the Lakers showed how desperately they miss the superstar guard when he is not on the floor.

Although Bryant sat for a combined 5:11, the Lakers were outscored 15-2 in that time. Jackson has been playing a lineup of Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Maurice Evans and Ronny Turiaf with starter Lamar Odom when Bryant has gone to the bench.

“Ive been leaving Lamar out there with them, Jackson said. “I think Im going to stop that. Just let them go really on their own because they play really well and move the ball well and Ive saddled them with Lamar. Its been unfortunate. Hes not been carrying the load.

Jackson also will have to decide whether to start forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who was benched for the final 21 minutes of Fridays loss. The Cavaliers start two guards alongside James; Jackson said he would open today with Bryant on Larry Hughes.

Radmanovic missed all four shots he took Friday and struggled to guard Torontos Chris Bosh. He said Saturday: “I dont have a big credit with the coach. Ive got to get my stuff straight before he makes some changes.

Even with the Lakers more than 50 games into the season, Radmanovic still is searching for answers. He said he is not bothered by the hand injury he suffered in training camp. Its more a matter of getting off to a good start when he plays.

“Its been a tough season, Radmanovic said. “Ive probably played the last minutes (of games) my whole career. Its been frustrating. Im just trying to be a team player right now and put my agenda on the side. Just have the game come to me. Its been tough but I dont want to force anything.

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Pistons 93, Lakers 78

What was most disappointing about Brian Cook’s blowup between the third and fourth quarters Thursday night was the fact that Phil Jackson addressed his players about this very issue during the season opening meeting back in October.

With a much deeper roster this season, Jackson acknowledged he would have some hard decisions to make from game to game. The Lakers were expecting to have to put healthy players on the inactive list some nights. Other players would dress but might not play. All would be capable of making a contribution.

The Lakers’ run of injuries changed that but Jackson’s message about submitting for the good of the team should have carried through all season. Cook’s outburst wasn’t about a warm-up top discarded in Jackson’s lap, it was about the frustration of not playing.

It has been a roller-coaster ride for Cook. The Lakers brought in a player in Vladimir Radmanovic who seemingly made him expendable. Then he signed a three-year extension hours before the season opener. He battled a respiratory infection and vertigo and didn’t play a couple of games in late November/early December.

But Cook not only found his way back into the rotation, he wound up starting after Lamar Odom went down with a knee injury and Vladimir Radmanovic couldn’t fill the void. These things always come around on Jackson teams. He even gave Von Wafer some minutes last season when Kobe Bryant was suspended.

Now Cook’s the 10th man on the bench with Odom back. All Cook has to do, though, is look to his right at Aaron McKie and Shammond Williams, two players who are even more buried than he is. Williams gave up a starting job on a top European team to come to the Lakers and wait for his name to be called.

Jackson also cares about his bench players. Earlier this season, he told us he appreciated it as a player when his coach told him he wished he could have used him on a night he didn’t play. Jackson is holding midseason meetings right now with his players. He and Cook are sure to revist what happened Thursday in their sit down.

* * *

What was most disappointing about Thursday’s game was that the Lakers weren’t in it basically from the first quarter on. “We have not played a good game on this floor in about four or five years,” Jackson said.

The Lakers have beaten the top five teams in the Western Conference already this season but were blown out twice by the Pistons, who have the Eastern Conference’s best record. They trailed 18-8 after six minutes and were rarely in single digits the rest of the game.

Smush Parker had a terrible first quarter, mising all five shots he took and committing two turnovers. One of them came when he threw a pass into the backcourt looking for Kobe Bryant. The other came when he tried to lob a pass to Bryant with the Pistons playing pressure defense.

Radmanovic struggled to cover Rasheed Wallace and Bryant didn’t take his first shot until 27.4 seconds were left in the quarter. The Lakers trailed 28-17 after the first quarter and didn’t get any closer the rest of the way than four points in the second quarter.

“They played like champions ,” Bryant said. “They played really hard and are great defensively. They were really aggressive and we couldn’t get into anything. It was just a tough night for us.”

* * *

I was surprised at how well Chris Webber played considering all the questions last month about how much he had left in the tank. Webber finished 18 points, 11 rebounds and four assists but the box score only tells part of the story.

Webber hit a big 3-pointer with 1:27 left in the first half. In fact, it was his first 3 since coming to Detroit. He came back at the start of the second half and made the play of the game, whipping a behind-the-back pass to Tayshaun Prince cutting for a basket. Webber also blocked Maurice Evans in the fourth quarter when the Lakers had a chance to make it a 10-point game.

“He’s just absolutely phenomenal making those passes,” Bryant said. “I can see the guys when he comes into the game, everybody’s kind of licking their chops and cutting a lot harder.”

* * *

Jackson was asked before the game about the difference between the Pistons with and without Ben Wallace. He said Wallace set the tone with his shot blocking and rebounding and talked about the havoc that offensive rebounds, in particular, cause.

“You people don’t understand how valuable that is – - at least my players don’t understand how valuable that is,” Jackson said. “If you have a second opportunity, a lot of things break down.”

The Lakers outrebounded the Pistons 45-44 but they gave up several key rebounds. In the third quarter, Radmanovic was beaten to the rebound off an Odom missed free throw by Webber. Soon after, Wallace kept alive the offensive rebound off a Webber miss.

Jackson was on the Lakers about their rebounding. Odom turned around while the Pistons were shooting free throws and said, “They’ve got to want it, P.J.” The Lakers had to play the perfect game to beat Detroit and didn’t even come close.

* * *

Asked Jackson before the game about how Andrew Bynum is coming along at shooting with his left hand. Bynum then proceeded to miss a bunch of left-handed shots in the game. He went 2 of 6 and finisehd with five points and five rebounds in 29 minutes.

“That’s the thing we like about him is that he experiments with his left hand and tries to do some things and that’s gratifying,” Jackson said.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich.–Before the Lakers set out on this eight-game road trip, their longest since December 1989, coach Phil Jackson framed it for his team in terms of bringing them together or tearing them apart.

After watching the scene that unfolded on the bench between the third and fourth quarters of Thursday nights 93-78 loss to the Detroit Pistons, it was hard not to conclude that the Lakers were coming apart at the seams.

Already beaten by the Pistons, the Lakers were broken when forward Brian Cook engaged in a furious shouting match with assistant coach Brian Shaw after Jackson removed Cook from the game for a perceived act of insubordination.

Jackson called for Cook to check in for Lamar Odom with 1:25 left in the third quarter, then removed him immediately after he believed Cook intentionally deposited his warm-up top in the coachs lap on his way to the scorers table.

Jackson sent Andrew Bynum to replace Cook, who returned to the bench without playing a second. Once the quarter ended, Cook blew up during the timeout and Odom had to step in to keep him and Shaw separated.

“We talked about it just now after the game and he apologized, Jackson said. “Thats not in character for Brian to do that but hes frustrated. He hasnt been playing in the regular rotation now. Theres some things thats about that thats not unnatural.

Ever since Odom returned from a sprained knee ligament, Cook has struggled to find playing time.

He signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract extension before the season opener, started 17 games while Odom was injured but after Thursday has not played in three of six games on this trip.

“Anybody who knows me, they know Im passionate about the game to the fullest extent, Cook said. “I practice hard, I play hard, I work hard in the summer. I love my teammates. Im a team player. I think (Jackson) knows that about me.

“I met with him afterwards and we settled it. I told him I didnt mean to do it. He said that he wants to do whats best for me. Hes going to use me at the times he wants to use me. Thats what I have to deal with is him using me the way he wants to.

“Ive dealt with it all year. Ive dealt with it for three years. Its nothing new for me. I look forward to dealing with it for three more years.

Cook also had a heated discussion with trainer Gary Vitti during a timeout with 8:58 left in the fourth. He rejoined the huddle during timeouts but did not play even as the Lakers trailed by as many as 20 points in the quarter.

“You just try to nullify the situation, Shaw said. “Theres always points in a game where your emotions get high. Sometimes you do or say things that you dont necessarily mean but you get caught up in the moment. I just felt like I needed to kind of address the situation and see if I could make it go away. Things happen

It was the second shouting match for the Lakers on this trip. Odom and Sasha Vujacic had a fiery exchange during a fourth quarter timeout of last Fridays game at Indiana. But Jackson said he wasnt concerned that the Lakers were coming apart after 11 days on the road.

“I need players to be emotional about the game, want to play, to be desirous of getting in the ballgame and do their part, Jackson said. “Brians one of those guys that is and hes frustrated because hes not getting an opportunity right now and he did.

“He had a regular rotation up until a couple weeks ago. But right now hes out. Thats OK. Thats part of what you do.

The Lakers didnt fare much better on the court, where they lost to the Pistons for the eighth consecutive time at the Palace. Only two Ronny Turiaf free throws with 25.9 seconds remaining saved the Lakers from their lowest scoring game of the season.

“We just got our butts kicked by a veteran team, Odom said. “They really made us look young.

They unraveled in the third quarter. Smush Parker drew a three-shot foul but missed two free throws with the chance to make it a six-point game. Kobe Bryant also had a terrible time handling the ball, committing four turnovers and having a shot blocked.

Chauncey Billups twice stripped Bryant in the quarter and blocked his shot. The Pistons scored four times at the other end after Bryant lost the ball. He finished with 18 points but made just 5 of 13 shots and had eight turnovers in all.

“Detroit plays great defense with their hands and they were able to get in Kobes game tonight, grab his arm, grab the ball, knock it out of his hands, Jackson said. “It was frustrating for him, but we have to go around that stuff, we have to play beyond it.

The Lakers now have to win one of their final two games – - against Toronto and Cleveland – - to secure a 4-4 split on this trip. They also admitted that Cooks blowup was something that should have been kept in the locker room.

“From the outside looking in, it always looks a little worse than really what it is, Odom said. “Its just a growing up process. It just so happens that we grow up in front of 20,000 people.

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Wednesday report

What a difference a year makes for the Lakers in the injury department. Their opening night starters last season – - Smush Parker, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm – - combined to miss a total of 37 games.

Parker played all 82 games, Bryant missed two due to a suspension, Odom missed two with a rib injury, Brown missed 10 with a hamstring strain and Mihm missed six with a shoulder injury and 17 after severely spraining his right ankle.

If you take the projected starting five this season – - Parker, Bryant, Luke Walton, Odom and Brown – - they already have missed 56 games. That’s before factoring in the 49 games Mihm has missed since having a second surgery on the ankle he injured last season.

So the Lakers have lost more than 100 games to injury already this season. They got the news Wednesday that Brown will be out another four to six weeks as he continues to recover from a severe ankle sprain. He would miss between 13 and 20 games based on that timetable.

Unless the Lakers are confident Mihm will be back in March – - and Phil Jackson said he is not putting any expectations on Mihm, who was supposed to miss the entire season – - then it probably makes sense for the Lakers to consider adding a big man.

That’s easier said than done, although there will be centers available as the Feb. 22 trade deadline approaches. Right now, the Lakers are making do with Andrew Bynum starting and Ronny Turiaf getting minutes as a backup center. Brian Cook and Vladimir Radmanovic are the emergency centers in case of foul trouble.

You also have to wonder if Bynum is going to be the starter from here on out. If Brown returns in the middle of March, Bynum will have logged 2 1-2 months as the full-time center since Brown went down with the ankle injury Dec. 31. Would Bynum be best served by going back to the bench? Would the team be best served by that move?

* * *

Back when the Lakers opened the season by playing 15 of their first 20 games at home, many people deferred judgment until the schedule balanced out. Well, after Thursday’s game at Detroit, the Lakers finally will be back to even. They have played 25 home games and will play their 25th road game against the Pistons.

If anyone has any thoughts about the Lakers at the 50-game mark, I’ll post them here if you send them.

* * *

What do you do on a 15-degree night in Detroit? You see what this Hockeytown thing is all about. I hadn’t been to an NHL game since the lockout but bought a ticket and beer and took in the Red Wings-Coyotes game at Joe Louis Arena, where the Stanley Cup banners go back to 1935-36.

Detroit won 4-2 and Henrik Zetterberg – - who I couldn’t have named before Wednesday – - had one of the goals of the season. At least that’s what they said on the postgame radio show. He had a breakaway in the second period, wrapped around the goal and deftly flipped in a backhand shot instead of trying to cram the puck in the net.

Another highlight: Somebody had the brilliant marketing idea of driving a Toyota Tundra on the ice during the first intermission. You couldn’t even hear the sales pitch for the truck because of the fans who were alternately booing and shouting obscenities. This city feels the pain of the American automaker like no other.

For what it’s worth, Phil Jackson is a hockey fan. There was a Thrashers-Sabres game being played on Tuesday in Atlanta. “Those are two good teams,” Jackson informed us. Of course, it’s probably a good idea that Jackson – - who starred in a recent series of Toyota commercials – - didn’t head to Joe Louis on Wednesday.

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Tuesday report

For the first time Monday, the subject of a contract extension for Andrew Bynum came up with Phil Jackson. I wrote something about this a little while back but its hard to understate how important July 1, 2008 is going to be to the Lakers future.

Thats the first day of a window that runs through Oct. 31, 2008 when the Lakers can lock up Bynum to a multimillion-dollar contract extension. Its the same thing that Cleveland went through last summer with LeBron James.

The question is what kind of body of work the Lakers are going to have when they talk about committing an incredible sum of money to a 20-year-old kid. If you think Bynum is a franchise center, do you start talking about a max contract?

Just to put a max contract into perspective, if the NBA salary cap is up to about $58 million by then, Bynum could be signing (gulp) a five-year, $87 million extension. It would go into effect beginning the 2009-10 season.

Jackson said Monday that the Lakers would be doing little more than projecting when they had to make that decision.

“Theres not even going to be a maturity in his body, let alone mentally at the time that we have to make some big decisions, Jackson said. “Hes got to show a certain sense of responsibility that really takes it a long ways.

If the Lakers cant agree on an extension with Bynum, they still would retain his rights as a restricted free agent after the 2008-09 season. They could match any deal Bynum would receive, although things get a little murky after that.

Bynum could play the 2009-10 season on a qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent. He could force the Lakers into a sign-and-trade if he decided he wanted to leave. Or he could sign an abbreviated three-year extension much like James did.

Its too early to talk about what the Lakers should offer Bynum. What I propose is an over/under on Bynums future deal. If you look at the contracts Nene, Chris Kaman and Tyson Chandler all recently received, Bynum is going to have a gargantuan payday.

Start by looking at the centers with whom Bynum compares using John Hollingers Player Efficiency Rating. This is just to figure out what ballpark Bynums in. He ranks 14th among centers with a PER of 17.20, above the average of 15 for an NBA player.

Among players who have signed big deals, Samuel Dalembert ($9.680 million in 07-08) is 13th, Eddy Curry ($8.947 million) is 11th and Zydrunas Ilgauskas ($10.142 million) is 10th. Below Bynum are Chris Wilcox ($6.5 million) and Erick Dampier ($8.597 million). The top five centers are all max contract players.

If you take an average value of $10 million, then Bynum would get a five-year, $50 million deal. If you take a starting point of $10 million, then Bynum would get a five-year, $60.5 million deal. Split the difference and your over/under is $55.3 million.

Needless to say, its critical for the Lakers to figure out what they have next season in Bynum. This is my estimate of the kind of deal Bynum will be looking at. Id love to see someone elses.

* * *

A postscript to Mondays story about Kobe Bryant meeting a 5-year-old boy named Kobe Grandstaff after the Lakers game. I got an e-mail today saying that not only is the father a student pastor, he also helped scores of families that relocated to Atlanta after Hurricane Katrina.

* * *

Lakers notes for Wednesday

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

ATLANTA–Never would the Lakers have guessed when they left on this eight-game trip more than a week ago that they might arrive home with forward Luke Walton still struggling to return from a sprained ankle.

Walton suffered the injury Jan. 26 and has missed six games as a result. He hoped to return Monday against the Hawks, then talked about using a two-day break between games to get ready to play Thursday at Detroit.

But Walton was unable to practice Tuesday and his availability is in question with the Lakers playing back-to-back games against the Pistons and Toronto Raptors. They will finish this trip Sunday at Cleveland.

“Hes getting frustrated with the situation, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “Its longer than he ever thought it would be. Its just difficult for him to sustain it when youre on the road like this and youre trying to find a way to get out there and nothing seems to work right.

Walton said Monday he woke up with the ankle feeling great. When he got on the floor at shootaround, however, Walton couldnt shake the pain. The Lakers have had to scale back from rehab work to simple treatment sessions.

“Im able to do more and more stuff, said Walton, who originally was supposed to miss about a week. “I just cant do the full-out running or the cutting yet. Until I can do that, I cant play.

The Lakers have spent plenty of time this month worrying about sprained ankles. Kwame Brown was to fly to Indianapolis after practice to get a second opinion on his injured left ankle, which he rolled in a Dec. 31 game.

Former starting center Chris Mihm is on this trip and was working out on an elliptical machine Tuesday. Mihm was supposed to be out for the season after undergoing a second ankle surgery but could return if his rehab continues ahead of schedule.

“Were certainly not trying to put any pressure on him to make a return this year, Jackson said. “Just whatever happens. We hope that he has the opportunity but were certainly not counting on it.

Two-man game: Jackson was asked about Kobe Bryants balancing act between taking over games and trusting his teammates. He did both in the fourth quarter Monday, scoring 11 points but also giving up the ball to Smush Parker for a key 3-pointer.

“We really think that if we distribute the ball at the right time in the game when the focus comes on him, theres some easy shots that people have, Jackson said. “If he trusts his teammates in those situations, were really a difficult team to stop.

Page turner: Jackson put off giving a book to each player on this trip, one of his annual traditions as a coach. He was unable to find a book that was out of print and went off on his players recently that they werent going to appreciate them anyway.

“All you guys can do is play video games and watch porn movies, Jackson said.

Jackson added that he probably will hand out books on the Lakers four-game trip in March.

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Lakers 90, Hawks 83

You can file this one under oops: The NBA sent out a press release Monday announcing the four participants in the All-Star weekend dunk contest (Nate Robinson, Dwight Howard, Tyrus Thomas and Gerald Green) as well as a who’s who list of judges.

Kobe Bryant was one of the judges among the elite company of Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Julius Erving and Vince Carter. The work is little more than deciding whether a dunk is worth a 9 or 10. But somebody forget to tell Bryant that he agreed to participate.

Bryant was surprised to say the least when he was asked about it before Monday’s game. He said he had a conversation with the league but hadn’t officially committed. Here’s the kicker: Bryant isn’t exactly the biggest fan of the NBA office right now after his debatable one-game suspension last week.

It’s not as if Bryant is going to blow off the dunk contest and head to the Bellagio – - he’s already in for the Skills Challenge as part of All-Star Saturday night – - but you have to think the NBA now is going to find some way to get him back that $161,000 in lost pay from the suspension.

The NBA, by the way, is instituting the Nate Robinson rule for this year’s dunk contest. A player has to complete a dunk within two minutes of being given the ball. Robinson needed something like 14 tries last year to throw the ball off the backboard and dunk it. You now get two tries after the two minutes expire.

* * *

Stop the presses: The Lakers finally beat a bad team.

Just remember that after losing twice to Charlotte and New Orleans, as well as dropping games to Memphis, Portland, Milwaukee, Seattle and New York, that Monday’s victory against the 18-29 Hawks was not a given. Atlanta had won five of seven games before taking the floor at Philips Arena.

I’m not sure how much analysis that game deserves. The Lakers were struggling with the Hawks zone before Bryant checked back in and hit four jumpers in the fourth quarter. Atlanta helped the Lakers’ cause by missing 5 of 9 free throws in the fourth quarter, possibly because they don’t go to the line that often in pressure situations.

Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said of the battle between Bryant and Joe Johnson: “I don’t look at it like that. Joe tried to do what he thought he could do. Kobe’s going to make plays. Joe’s in a situation now where he’s learning how to be a big-time player. He’s been great for us all season. He made some plays, he hit a big 3 to keep us right there. But again, we missed free throws.”

Johnson was called an offensive foul in the fourth quarter for shoving Bryant as he fought for position. He also missed 1 of 2 free throws with 4:48 left after Bryant had just hit his finger-wagging jumper. Bryant found Smush Parker for a 3 on the next possession. That was the game’s biggest shot.

Bryant on Johnson: “He’s a great all-around player. I told him on the court, `I hope this All-Star thing doesn’t discourage you. Don’t let it stop you from doing what you came here to do. Continue to play, continue to improve.’ Because he’s a hell of a basketball player and if he continues to stay the course, I’m sure he’ll be an All-Star.”

* * *

Phil Jackson had a couple of priceless reactions in Monday’s game. When Vladimir Radmanovic had the ball stolen by Tyronn Lue in the third quarter, which led to another alleyoop dunk for Josh Smith, Jackson took the gum wrapper (or whatever was in his hands) and tossed it behind him in disgust.

When Smith scored on a three-point play with 1:56 left in the fourth – - Lamar Odom exactly the foul the Lakers couldn’t afford – - Jackson took off his glasses, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Smith did miss the free throw to keep the Lakers ahead by six.

Jackson gambled at the start of the fourth quarter by sitting Bryant with the Lakers holding a 62-57 lead. What followed wasn’t pretty – - Zaza Pachulia scored on three straight possessions and stole Jordan Farmar’s ill-advised entry pass to Andrew Bynum – - but the Lakers were able to bring a fresh Bryant back with a 68-65 advantage.

* * *

Parker should have been ejected by referee Eric Lewis at the end of the second quarter. After getting called for a charge, Parker yelled the F-word in the direction of Lewis, who hit him with a technical. Then Parker made a move at Lewis and kept yelling. Bryant had to push Parker in the chest toward the Lakers bench.

Parker has to be more careful in that situation. Just today the NBA sent out an announcement that Gary Payton had been suspended one game for “directing obscenities and other verbal abuse at game officials upon ejection.” Parker wasn’t ejected but still you can’t do what he did.

* * *

Forward Luke Walton wanted to return from his sprained ankle for Mondays game but decided he wasnt ready at shootaround. Walton now hopes a two-day break between games will allow him to play Thursday at Detroit.

“Im able to do more and more stuff, Walton said. “I just cant do the full-out running or the cutting yet. Until I can do that, I cant play.

* * *

I’ve covered more than 200 games in three seasons and I’ve never seen a fan holding a sign that they named their kid after Kobe. That was easily the coolest part of Monday’s game. The father, Tim Grandstaff, said his wife let him name their son Kobe as long as the middle name was Robert after her father.

It was great that they got to meet Kobe because Tim said some people told them they should change their son’s name to Robert when Bryant spent a year facing sexual assault charges in Colorado. They stood by Kobe and now they have pictures to show and a story to tell for the rest of their life.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

ATLANTA–In the fifth row across from the Lakers bench, a 5-year-old boy stood during the fourth quarter Monday night with a No. 24 jersey, a matching pair of Nike sneakers and a sign: “Kobe My Parents Named Me After You.

Kobe Robert Grandstaff had the best seat in Philips Arena to watch his namesake drill four jumpers after checking back into the game, then wag his finger and dismiss the Atlanta Hawks in a 90-83 victory.

“I was a Lakers fan my whole life, father Tim Grandstaff said, “and from when they drafted (Kobe Bryant) I liked the fact that he was a kid and nobody thought he could do anything. He proved the world wrong.

Whats in a name? Bryant scored 27 points, made 10 of 18 shots, and delivered the Lakers a victory they had to have on his eight-game road trip. Afterward he met the Grandstaffs in the locker room, greeting little Kobe with a “Whats up, sir?

“Ive heard of a few, Bryant said when asked about fans naming their kids after him. “Ive never seen one quite that old before. Father time, I guess. Its very humbling.

Tandy Grandstaff, the boys mother, told Bryant, “You made our life. Bryant also carried the night for the Lakers, who swept the Hawks for the first time since 1999-2000 and held a team to fewer than 90 points for the first time since Dec. 4.

He returned with 8:10 remaining and the Lakers holding a 68-65 lead, which could have been even smaller had Josh Childress not missed two free throws.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson thought Bryant finished the third quarter with tired legs and rested him to start the fourth. The first time he touched the ball after returning, Bryant hit a 19-footer over Joe Johnson, starting him on a memorable roll.

He connected on two more jumpers, including a 3-pointer from the corner with the 24-second clock expiring. With the crowd on its feet, Bryant then answered a 3-pointer by Johnson with a shot straight out of his highlight films.

With Johnson and Speedy Claxton trying everything to stop him, Bryant buried an 18-footer on the move to put the Lakers ahead 77-71 with 5:07 remaining. He wagged his finger all the way downcourt and to the bench as the Hawks called timeout.

“Its swagger, Bryant said. “That comes from the playground. Thats playing at the park, having fun. People watching the game . . . theyre part of it, so you want to bring them along with the ride as well and have a good time with them.

He finished the fourth quarter with 11 points and made the biggest pass of the game as well. Bryant rose for a jumper over two defenders but fired the ball at the last second to Smush Parker in the corner.

“Ive learned while playing with Kobe to expect the unexpected, Parker said.

Not only had he missed all six shots he had taken, Parker had been involved in an ugly incident with a minute left in the second quarter. After he was called for a charging foul, Parker had to be restrained by Bryant from going after referee Eric Lewis.

“Its an emotional game for me, I guess, Parker said. “I let a lot of things build up and that just put me over the top. I felt it was a bad call and I wasnt able to control myself.

Jackson deadpanned that he could have benched Parker the rest of the night but “gave him a second chance because I have a kind heart. Sure enough, Parker hit the 3-pointer to put the Lakers ahead 80-72.

“I think it shows trust, Bryant said. “I think he acknowledges that. He sees that Ill continue to come to him and continue to have confidence in him to make the right decisions. I think when you do that, it can only help carry your team a long way.

Parker finished with three points on 1-for-8 shooting but had six steals. Lamar Odom also endured a tough shooting night (4 of 17) but filled the box score with 15 points, 18 rebounds and six assists. Johnson led Atlanta with 27 points.

The Lakers shot 42.7 percent, committed 17 turnovers and improved to 3-2 on this trip. Jackson joked afterward that the Lakers took Super Bowl Monday off, something they cant afford with games left at Detroit, Toronto and Cleveland.

There was one other matter. With 28.8 seconds remaining and the Lakers in front 86-78, teenage center Andrew Bynum (14 points, 10 rebounds) inexplicably launched a corner 3-pointer with 12 seconds left on the shot clock.

Jackson immediately sent Ronny Turiaf for Bynum and said the 19-year-old had earned an automatic $50 fine. Bynum, who has attempted only one other 3-pointer in his career, jokingly said, “Im going to pay it in pennies.

“Those are things I dont want to see, Jackson said.

The Grandstaffs, meanwhile, were left with memories to last a lifetime. They were given the tickets as a Christmas present, then wound up telling their familys story. It must be noted that their son plays for a certain purple-and-gold team in pre-Kindergarten.

“Its the best feeling in the word because hes old enough to react to whats happening, Tim Grandstaff said. “Hes excited with me during the game. We high-five each other. Its a great moment.

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Walton update

Nobody said coming back from a sprained ankle was easy. Luke Walton had hoped to return for tonight’s game against Atlanta but Phil Jackson ruled him out at shootaround. “Luke’s not going to play. He did some things on the court but he’s not ready to play. Kwame (Brown) isn’t either,” Jackson said.

Walton will miss his sixth game since suffering the injury. The Lakers have two days before they play at Detroit on Thursday night, which would give Walton the chance to practice twice before returning.

Jackson also had a pretty good answer to the question of whether he considered the Hawks a dangerous team. “Have you seen how we play in Atlanta?” Jackson asked. The Lakers have lost twice here during Jackson’s tenure as coach.

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Pacers 95, Lakers 84

One of the privileges of doing this job is that we have a seat for every game that most fans would kill to have just once. This is all changing with the NBAs new media guidelines but the seats at Conseco Fieldhouse tonight for the Lakers-Pacers game were exceptional.

In fact, they were almost uncomfortably great. We were sitting courtside, along the baseline, about 10 feet from the Lakers bench. We spend a lot of time watching the bench for visual clues as to what people are thinking and feeling. It’s hard not to feel like you’re staring when you’re sitting that close. But there’s also hundreds of small things you can note.

Heres one example: With 10:22 left in the fourth quarter, Lamar Odom was fouled on a play by Danny Granger. It seemed like a benign foul at the time and Odom tossed in a shot after the whistle. But Phil Jackson yelled “Continuation! from the bench, a one-word protest that that basket should have counted.

Im not sure any of the referees even acknowledged Jackson. The Lakers still had possession but Odom went on to miss a 3-pointer. It was the Lakers best chance at getting a basket during the fourth-quarter stretch with Kobe Bryant on the bench. Those four minutes also wound up torpedoing the entire night.

Jackson was asked afterward if there was a single play that turned the tide in that 32-14 fourth quarter.

His answer: “Lamar had a penetration, scored the basket, they called it on the floor, I dont think he put the ball down again. I was disappointed in that call. It was a big difference maker. We had to take (the ball) out on the side. It would have given us a four-point lead or something like that. That was a problematic thing.

(I wonder how many fans in the arena or watching on TV at home picked up on that play. My pick for the biggest play in the fourth came as the Pacers ran out after Bryant missed a drive and got a dunk by Granger to make it 82-76.)

There also was a timeout at what seemed like the end of the third quarter but wasnt. While the referees reviewed whether Vladimir Radmanovic committed an offensive foul before the buzzer, Shammond Williams and Smush Parker were dancing (discreetly) to the arena music.

That shows you how good the Lakers were feeling after three quarters and how devastating the fourth quarter was. Im sure the Lakers also would have rather us not be sitting next to the bench when Lamar Odom and Sasha Vujacic had a shouting match during a fourth-quarter timeout.

* * *

If the fourth quarter was a horror show, the first quarter might as well have been a trip to the amusement park given the merry-go-round of players that were used.

Jackson sent Ronny Turiaf for Andrew Bynum 2:04 into the game after Bynum picked up his first foul and Jermaine ONeal had scored three baskets against him. But Turiaf stayed on the floor just 2:26 before picking up two fouls.

So Jackson brought in Brian Cook for Turiaf. They didnt even make it another 30 seconds before Jackson benched Smush Parker – - whod given up a layup to Jamaal Tinsley – - for Jordan Farmar and brought Bynum back for Vladimir Radmanovic.

Jackson used two timeouts in the first 6 1-2 minutes to try and unsuccessfully keep the Lakers from falling behind by double digits. He went on to sit Lamar Odom after Odom committed three straight turnovers and brought Radmanovic back for Cook.

Its not easy to get in a rhythm when all those changes are going on. Jackson went even deeper in his bench early in the second quarter, bringing in Shammond Williams to replace Farmar and guard Darrell Armstrong. Williams definitely was surprised to hear his name called.

* * *

Jackson offered his thoughts on Caron Butler being selected an All-Star after being traded by the Lakers. If he wants, Jackson can congratulate Butler tonight when the Lakers and Wizards play in Washington.

“We didnt want to have to trade him, Jackson said. “Theres no doubt about it. We had to give up something to get a big man and at that particular point, we really needed a big man in this organization.

“We got Andrew and Kwame in the same year. Caron was the guy that had to go and thats a tough situation. I never had the opportunity to coach him, but I liked the way he played.

Jackson doubted that Butler would be averaging 20 ppg had he stayed with the Lakers: “I think that his game fits very well with (Washington) – - slashing, quick, operative offense.

* * *

One highlight of the trip was watching Lakers spokesman John Black inform complete strangers Thursday that Indianapolis has the greatest radio station in the country. This was usually met with blank stares by the other person.

Black stumbled onto WTTS 92.3 FM in his hotel room. You can listen to it here. I have to say that I listened for several hours today while doing the NBA power rankings. It restores faith that there are good radio stations left in America.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS–Who knew that seasonal affective disorder could produce such profound effects on a basketball team, leading to a fourth-quarter collapse and shouting matches between teammates?

That was the diagnosis Lakers coach Phil Jackson offered after watching the Lakers score just six points in the first 10 1-2 minutes of the fourth quarter and fork over a 95-84 victory to the Indiana Pacers on a frigid Friday night.

The Lakers started the fourth quarter with a lineup of Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Maurice Evans and Brian Cook on the floor and coughed up a seven-point lead while Kobe Bryant was resting on the bench.

Not only did the Lakers fail to score a point during the four minutes without Bryant but Odom and Vujacic came to the bench shouting at each other with 8:07 remaining and exchanged words throughout the timeout.

“We kind of lost the lead, Vujacic said, “so the nerves went up and we just had a misunderstanding. Nothing huge. Its nothing big.

In addition, center Kwame Brown volunteered before the game that he would be seeking a second opinion on his sprained left ankle. Brown will return to Indianapolis after practice Tuesday to see the same specialist who once treated Devean George.

Now the Lakers would have to sweep the remaining five games on this road trip to finish with the 6-2 mark that Jackson talked about before leaving Los Angeles. Where, by the way, the temperature was not in the single digits Friday.

“I think they just had SAD tonight, Jackson said. “Its sunlight deprivation. When you get here and its all gray and you have all these California boys, they just get depressed and cant take it. They were very sad tonight.

Bryant had one of his worst shooting nights of the season, finishing with 22 points but making just 7 of 25 shots. Smush Parker finished with 20 points and six steals but the Lakers were trounced 32-14 in the fourth quarter by Indiana.

The Lakers took a 70-63 lead into the fourth quarter, with Parker providing a lift by turning two steals into easy dunks in the last 3 1-2 minutes of the third. But Bryant went to the bench and the Lakers immolated in the fourth.

“I might have been putting too big a responsibility on Lamar out there with the younger kids, Jackson said. “Theyve done pretty well over the course of the season but they werent ready for that tonight.

It started with Farmar missing a 3-pointer, Cook losing the ball and Odom missing a 3-pointer. The play that will be remembered, though, came as Darrell Armstrong – - the NBAs third-oldest player at 38 – - blocked Vujacic on the fast break.

“Thats his first taste of Darrell Armstrong, Bryant said. “He does that stuff. We saw it coming the whole way. I just couldnt say, `Nooooo. I was over on the bench and I tried to warn him but he couldnt hear me.

The Lakers struggled just to beat the 24-second clock on their next couple of possessions. Odom and Vujacic jawed at one another during the next timeout and Bryant had to calm down Vujacic on the bench.

“Sasha cares so much about doing the right thing, Bryant said, “`he gets wrapped up in the game emotionally. Hes got to step back from that and be a little bit calmer.

Asked what the Lakers should have been doing, Odom answered: “Get it to players where theyre comfortable with the ball. Its like our recognition is bad. We dont know who were playing with.

Even with Bryant back, the Lakers could not stop their demise. Odom missed all three shots in the fourth quarter and had two turnovers, including losing the ball to Jeff Foster with the Lakers down 82-76.

Bryant made just 1 of 5 shots in the quarter before burying back-to-back 3-pointers after the Lakers fell behind 89-76. The Lakers went nearly four minutes without a point in the fourth and were outscored 24-6 in the first 10 1-2 minutes.

“They sucked, Jackson said. “Thats about all you can say.

After scoring 43 points and hitting seven 3-pointers Wednesday in Boston, Bryant made just 1 of 8 shots in the first half and went 0 for 5 in the second quarter. He was able to draw a three-shot foul just before halftime as the Lakers closed to 44-41.

The Pacers went right at Andrew Bynum with Jermaine ONeal, who scored their first 11 points of the game. And Jackson wound up using 11 players, including summoning Shammond Williams from the end of the bench, in the first 14 minutes.

The Lakers bottomed out in the first quarter when Odom committed turnovers on three consecutive possessions and was benched with 2:55 left. Odom threw away a lob pass to Bynum, then a shovel pass to Bynum, and followed with an offensive foul.

Odom finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds but had six turnovers. The Lakers committed 21 turnovers in the game, although the Pacers finished with one more turnover for the game.

The news, meanwhile, was not encouraging for Brown, who missed his 16th game Friday with the sprained ankle. Brown said his agent requested the second opinion; the doctor who will be consulted was with at the Super Bowl this week with the Colts.

“Any time I ramp up exercise it starts flaring up and I cant complete a workout, Brown said. “Weve got to find out whats going on.

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Thursday report

Back when the Shaquille O’Neal trade was completed in July 2004, every story that was written included the fact that the Lakers failed to get back a single All-Star player for their franchise center. That changed Thursday when Caron Butler was selected as an Eastern Conference reserve to the All-Star Game. The only problem? Butler now plays for the Washington Wizards.

In the interest of fairness, it must be noted that the standard for being selected a forward out of the Western Conference was so high that neither Carmelo Anthony nor Josh Howard was chosen, although both could be injury replacements as selected by NBA commissioner David Stern. Lamar Odom also would have merited consideration had he stayed healthy. That said, Butler is having a career season with the Wizards.

He’s averaging 20.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg and shooting 47.8 percent. Butler also is playing for the team with the East’s best record. Here’s a link to a pretty good article about how Butler took the next step in going from a good player to an elite one. It also helps that Butler found stability after bouncing from Miami to LA to Washington and is playing for a general manager in Ernie Grunfeld who has followed him since high school.

I’m sure the Lakers are happy for Butler, who developed enough of a friendship with Kobe Bryant that he invited him to his mother’s house in Racine, Wis., on a road trip. Butler wound up being the casualty on a roster with too many small forwards and was traded to Washington for Kwame Brown. Phil Jackson has admitted not knowing how he would have played Butler, either in the backcourt or on the wing, as a starter or coming off the bench.

My question is whether Butler’s selection as an All-Star changes anyone’s perception about the Shaq trade or about the trade that brought Brown to the Lakers. When you measure the impact of each player, Butler has helped make the Wizards a better team even after losing Larry Hughes and Jared Jeffries to free agency. Brown finds himself competing for minutes with Andrew Bynum, the Lakers’ center of the future.

It’s also worth noting that Washington has Butler signed for four more seasons at an average of about $9.6 million. That’s a pretty good value for a (now) All-Star player. Brown is under contract for one more season and will make $9.1 million. The Wizards actually will be paying Butler less next season than the Lakers will be paying Brown.

Great quote also from Butler about being selected as an All-Star: “It’s really special to be a part of that elite group. It’s like ‘Cheers.’ You want to go where everyone knows your name, where you are recognized as a star. It’s a great feeling.”

* * *

Speaking of Brown, he was on the court at the end of practice Thursday at Conseco Fieldhouse. Jackson said Brown wouldn’t play Friday against Indiana and probably wouldn’t play Saturday against Washington. Here was Jackson’s update on how Brown looked and how his sprained ankle felt:

“Hes complaining but thats not unusual,” Jackson said. “He came out a little bit and dunked the ball and then went back off the floor and said it hurt. So his live-ball activitys a little bit limited still. But he did some things.

Jackson smiled and said “I would imagine not D.C.” when he was asked about Brown possibly returning Saturday. Brown’s not exactly a favorite son after he was selected No. 1 overall in 2001 and spent four turbulent seasons in Washington. But Jackson said he wouldn’t hesitate in bringing back Brown for that game if he was healthy.

“Not at all,” Jackson said. “I think players should step up and have to face the music.’

* * *

Some trivia to end with: Name the only team the Lakers have yet to play this season. One hint is that they’ll face that team twice in the same week this month.

* * *

Here’s the notes for Thursday. I’m happy to say the initial question about Smush Parker was something I’d been thinking about after a post on this blog last week.

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS–There was no way of knowing it when Smush Parker showed up at the Long Beach summer league in July 2005 but the playground legend from New York someday would start 128 consecutive games (and counting) for the Lakers.

For a player who went undrafted out of Fordham, failed to stick with three previous NBA teams and is making the leagues minimum salary, Parkers streak is remarkable, if rarely acknowledged amid the Lakers daily drama.

Yet while Parker has established himself as an NBA player during his 1 1-2 seasons with the Lakers, the 25-year-old guard also has left coach Phil Jackson at times wondering about his sense of entitlement.

“Sometimes I dont think Smush understands the value of what hes received and having that opportunity, Jackson said Thursday. “Secondly, Im happy that hes been able to do that because thats a remarkable stretch.

“But its kind of a two-way street, the reward or the value of what that opportunity means to him.

With Parker set to become a free agent this summer, the Lakers will evaluate through the end of the season whether he should be a starting guard for them in the future.

Parker will have two seasons of experience in the triangle offense in his favor. At the same time, the Lakers will be looking to take the next step in becoming championship contenders, which could involve signing or trading for another guard.

For now, Jackson said the Lakers “keep looking at the whole quality of Smushs games. That goes beyond scoring to encompass Parkers leadership, the pressure defense he plays and his ability to be a playmaker for his teammates.

There also is the matter of consistency. Jackson cited Parkers play in Tuesdays loss to New York, when he scored the Lakers first 11 points but missed 9 of 10 shots the rest of the game and finished with 14 points.

“Hes still going from game to game working on that, Jackson said. “I thought the other night he started out great at Madison Square Garden and then got behind the eight ball. All of a sudden, nothing worked for him and then he started forcing things just to force it. Thats where I want to see him grow.

Parkers numbers have improved every month this season – - he averaged 13.3 points in January – - and he recently credited a lunch with owner Jerry Buss to improving his attitude. No longer does Parker stalk off the court after being replaced in games.

Jackson also said Parker was upset earlier in the season when forward Brian Cook signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract extension. There are few full-time starters making as little as Parker, who $798,112 salary is the minimum for a fourth-year player.

“Hes making a salary thats by and large four times or five times less than a person who starts at that position, Jackson said. “It may not be recompense or reward for whats hes doing for us but yet its a valuable opportunity for him in the future that bodes really well.

Three for all: For the first time all season, Vladimir Radmanovic has scored in double figures in three consecutive games. Yet Jackson was not about to officially shed the “space cadet label he gave Radmanovic earlier in the season.

After watching Radmanovic hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key in the fourth quarter Wednesday, Jackson said he told him: “Im not impressed. That was not a good shot. It went in, but it was not a good shot.

“Those things were trying to eliminate, Jackson added, “just casting up a shot because it just might feel good.

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