First quarter wrap

Statistics don’t always tell the story, but in this case one stat in particular is pretty telling. The Lakers just shot 25 percent (5 of 20) from the field in the first quarter. The Suns were 13 of 18 (72 percent).

The Lakers should consider themselves lucky to be down 31-17

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Points of clarification

I think most people know what I was going for here, but I should clarify it anyway…in today’s notebook I discussed how the Lakers were in a 2-0 series hole in 2003 and had lost under Phil Jackson. Well, that should have been worded a little more clearly, because it didn’t reflect that Jackson had two Chicago teams that fell into 2-0 holes. So that’s that. For the record, the ’90 Bulls dropped the first two to Detroit in the conference finals and the ’94 Bulls dropped the first two to the Knicks in the second round. Both series went to seven games and the Bulls lost both series. The ’03 Lakers lost the first two games to the Spurs and lost in six games. The ’04 Lakers lost the first two games to the Spurs and won the series in six games. Whew…

There were a couple questions about who Lamar might have been referring to, and the relationship between him and Kobe. I can’t speak for Lamar, and there’s very little chance that he will call out anyone in specific publicly, but I think it could go either way. Kobe could very well be the target, especially after his post-Game 1 comments when he talked about being frustrated when his teammates don’t knock down open looks. Then again, Lamar was asked, independently, about Kobe’s leadership and gave him some good praise. I think the “separating” comments were more about Smush and Vlad. When you read their body language these days, it doesn’t look good.

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Kobe finishes third in MVP voting, according to GMs

Kobe Bryant finished a distant third behind Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki and Phoenix’ Steve Nash in MVP voting in a survery of NBA general managers posted on nba.com today.

Before you get all riled up, remember the real MVP award is voted on by the media, the results of which have not been announced yet. But according to the results of NBA.com’s survey, Nowitzki received 17 first-place votes and 8 second-place votes for a total of 109 points. Nash finished second with 82 points and Kobe Bryant finished third with 21 points. 25 of the leagues 30 general managers participated in the survey. Kobe only got one first place vote.

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Lakers speak, Wednesday edition

Since there seemed to be a good reaction to posting the transcripts of the day’s interviews, I’ll give it another shot today. It’s a good way to give you, the readers, an unfiltered look at what goes on, especially since I’ll only have enough room to get about 5 percent of this stuff in the newspaper. So…enjoy!

For those who don’t have the patience or inclination to read thousands of words, I’ll summarize briefly:

– The mood of the team isn’t good. Kobe Bryant put up a good front, and as a team leader that’s absolutely what he should be doing, but Phil Jackson flat-out said that the team’s mental state was not good today. Whether they can recapture that before tomorrow night is anyone’s guess.

– There is still some mild pain in Kobe’s ankle, but he will play. He didn’t participate in the full-squad scrimmage, and neither did Odom, Brown or Walton, so it actually wasn’t much of a full-team scrimmage, was it?

– I found Lamar Odom’s comments after Game 2 fascinating. You could dismiss them, and say that every team that falls into a playoff hole ends up in some amount of disarray, but this seems to run deeper. And it begs the question, why aren’t the Laker more angry? Why aren’t they pulling together with an us-against-the-world mentality, or at least putting up that front? Maybe because they’re just not that unified.

– There’s lots of talk below about the screen-and-roll defense. That’s something I’ll be getting into more tomorrow. Hope everyone enjoys the quotes. Feel free to post any questions you might have.
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The Lakers speak

Below, I’ve posted the transcript from the most recent media session, which includes extensive comments from Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson as well as a couple from Jordan Farmar. For info on Smush Parker, you can (and should, of course) read Steve Dilbeck’s column. After Steve finished talking to him for a couple minutes, Smush sat on a bench by himself and talked on his cell phone for about 20 minutes.
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Kirilenko does his best Adam Morrison …

Hi guys, Ramona Shelburne here. Just came across an interesting story in the Salt Lake Tribune while checking in on our old buddy, Ross Siler, who took a day and then headed out to Houston to cover the Jazz in their first round series against the Rockets. If you get a chance, check out the story he did on former Laker Derek Fisher yesterday.

I’ll make sure and forward along your comments to Ross, I’m sure he’d appreciate them. He did a bang up job with the Lakers beat and we’re all going to pitch in and see if we can pick up the baton for him.

Anyway, here’s the story on Andrei. Kirilenko has been one of the most disappointing, enigmatic players in the NBA this year so it’s hard what to make of this story. Crying after a Game 1 loss? Just imagine how this would play if this happened in a place like New York.

JAZZ: Kirilenko cries over diminished role
By Michael C. Lewis
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 04/22/2007 03:06:33 PM MDT

Posted: 3:07 PM- HOUSTON – Sitting alone at the edge of the court after the Jazz practiced for Game 2 of their first-round playoff series tonight, the team’s highest-paid player cried.
Forward Andrei Kirilenko used a towel to blot away tears from his red and swollen eyes Sunday while discussing his minimal role in the Jazz’s 84-75 loss to the Rockets in Game 1. Kirilenko played only 16 minutes – including only the last seven seconds of the fourth quarter.
“I want to play 48 minutes,” he said.
Kirilenko, who earned $12.3 million this season in the second year of a six-year maximum-salary contract, left the game with about five minutes left in the third quarter after appearing to twist his ankle trying to block a shot. He actually endured a blow to his groin, he said, but that wasn’t the reason he was on the bench while Houston’s Tracy McGrady heated up and ultimately sunk the Jazz.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was ready to play.”
Coach Jerry Sloan said Kirilenko was playing poorly – he finished with two points, one rebound, a steal, an assist and a blocked shot – so “I have to try to play somebody who can keep us in the ballgame.”
Without Kirilenko on the floor, the Jazz were left to defend McGrady with guards Derek Fisher and Gordan Giricek, and it didn’t work. The Rockets took off on a 16-4 run the moment
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Kirilenko left the game, with McGrady scoring 10 of his 22 second-half points in the final 3:42 of the period.

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Playoff preview audio

Hello to everyone. This is Rich Hammond and I’ll be taking over the Laker beat (as well as this blog) as Ross Siler has moved on. Steve Dilbeck and I will be off to Phoenix tomorrow night but for now, here’s a link to the podcast you’ll be able to find on the Daily News website. It’s myself and deputy sports editor Matt McHale, discussing the playoffs and the Lakers’ prospects.

Laker playoff preview

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Wednesday report

There’s no team quite like the Lakers, and Wednesday was proof of that again. So what if they’re playing tomorrow in one of the season’s biggest games? Luke Walton got to deny that he’s dating Britney Spears, Lamar Odom had a camera crew in tow and Andrew Bynum tipped us off that Kwame Brown might not play the rest of the season.

Didn’t you know the circus was back in town? I’m not sure whether to call Luke “Mr. Spears” or “Federline” right now but it’s amazing how two items in the British tabloids could catch fire. Spears has attended three Lakers games since getting divorced/leaving rehab and the Daily Star and Daily Mirror tried to connect the dots.

So you end up with some hilarious gossip from “sources” close to Spears. From the Star: “Luke’s all man – - not like Federline or any of the guys that she’s been used to. If anyone can sweep her off her feet, he can – - literally.”

Or my favorite from the Mirror: “Britney is certainly sports mad since dating Luke. She even chants his name when the rest of the fans do. Her face lights up when she sees him do well. She’s really fallen for him.”

It reached the point Wednesday where Walton was debating putting out a statement denying the rumors. As Kobe Bryant put it, “Youve got to do what youve got to do.” I did a Google News search and found Web sites mentioning the rumor in India, South Africa, New Zealand, Tunisia, Canada and England.

We’ll see if Britney shows up to watch the Lakers/Clippers game on Thursday night….Walton, by the way, is down to take part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camps for the second summer in a row. He went to South Africa last summer and is going to Brazil this summer.

* * *

Vladimir Radmanovic was hopeful that he could do more than just dress for the game. He played five-on-five Wednesday, had his “moments” on the floor, according to Phil Jackson, and said he hoped to play against the Clippers, his former team. “It felt good enough so that I can go tomorrow and give it a shot,” Radmanovic said.

Jackson on his team’s recent fourth-quarter struggles: “Maybe its the bad moon rising thats causing those things to happen to us where were missing free throws down the stretch or an errant play. But for whatever reason, were on the bad end of the stick right now, so weve got to reverse that.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–With four games left in the regular season, the good news is that the Lakers are free from distractions as they make their playoff push. Unless, of course, you count Luke Walton having to deny that hes the new Kevin Federline.

Or if you ignore the camera crew that followed every move Lamar Odom made after practice. As it turns out, Odom is launching a new Web site and played host to a party Wednesday night for his record label and clothing line.

Just your typical day at the office, Britney Spears rumors and all, for the Lakers, who will play the Clippers tonight at Staples Center in one of the biggest games in history between Los Angeles two professional basketball teams.

Denied a Hallway Series last spring, the Lakers and Clippers will be part of the next-best thing tonight. The Lakers could move to the brink of qualifying for the playoffs with a win while the Clippers are desperate not to fall out of playoff position.

“They really need this game like we really need it, said Odom, who played the first four seasons of his career with the Clippers. “Plus it just happens to be Clippers/Lakers. Its a great time.

The two teams never have met in the playoffs and seldom have played a more important late-season game. At the same time, Wednesdays events showed just what a unique place the Lakers continue to hold in the city.

Instead of talking about the playoffs, Walton tried to pull his personal life out of the tabloids. Somehow the dots were connected from Spears attending two recent Lakers games to a relationship between the pop princess/rehab queen and Walton.

“The rumors arent true, Walton said. “Im sure Britney is a great person. I dont even know her. I have a girlfriend right now. Im in a relationship. Im very happy with my relationship. I dont know where its all started, but none of it is true.

Walton is dating Bre Ladd, a former volleyball player at the University of Arizona, who happened to be sitting five seats down from Spears at one of the games she attended.

That wasnt mentioned when “Entertainment Tonight ran with the story earlier this week. Walton said his girlfriend was amused at first but has grown irritated. For his part, Waltons been hearing from friends who havent called in years.

“If I was living in Milwaukee, this wouldnt have happened, Walton said. “Its definitely an L.A. thing.

Walton was asked if this really would be the best time to take on Spears “issues, including her recent head-shaving episode, and answered, “Weve got our own issues. Were trying to win some ballgames and do something in the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant was asked if the Lakers had a modern-day Madonna and Dennis Rodman situation on their hands and replied, “If Luke dies his hair, then Ill start answering some of these questions.

Odom, meanwhile, couldnt even make the short walk for a bottle of Gatorade without a documentary crew on his heels. They were filming a video for lamarodom.com while he had a red-carpet event scheduled at a Venice club.

“Its really a blessing, Odom said. “I feel like Im talented as far as basketball is concerned and I have people around me who are just as talented as far as music, fashion and the arts are concerned. So Im really fortunate and lucky.

The Lakers (40-38) would be hard-pressed to say the same on the court, where they have lost six of their last eight games, a slide unlike any before for a Phil Jackson-coached team so close to the playoffs.

They still can wrap up a playoff spot with a victory tonight and one loss by eighth-place Golden State, thanks to tiebreakers they would hold over the Clippers and Warriors.

The Clippers beat the Lakers 90-82 last week but have lost their past three games to slip a half-game behind Golden State. The only way for the Clippers (37-40) to feel secure about their playoff position is to sweep their final five games.

There also was the small matter Wednesday of the continuing saga involving injured center Kwame Brown, who is bothered by a bone bruise in his left ankle. Brown has missed the last four games and said he wouldnt play again tonight.

Jackson has said he wont push Brown to return but also makes no secret of how much he needs his size on the court. He said nothing had changed Wednesday in regard to Brown, though teenage center Andrew Bynum made a most curious comment.

Bynum said hed “learned recently that Brown would be out the rest of the season. Brown seconded Jackson that nothing had been determined but for the second straight day would not commit to returning for the playoffs.

“Im just being real honest with them, letting them know how it feels, Brown said. “I definitely dont want to go out there and put myself in a situation where Im going to hurt myself even further or put the team in a situation where they think Im going to be able to play a certain way when I know I cant right now.

Brown pulled away in his pick-up truck as reporters headed back to hear Walton joke if there were any questions about defending the screen-and-roll. As Odom summed up so neatly, “You never know in La-la land.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–Out of the mouth of a child – - OK, Andrew Bynum is 19 years old and some 7 feet tall – - might have come truth Wednesday regarding injured center Kwame Browns status for the rest of the season.

Brown has struggled to overcome a bone bruise in his left ankle and is expected to miss his fifth straight game tonight. And Bynum said he was preparing as if he was going to start in Browns place the rest of the way.

“Thats something that I just learned recently that he was actually going to be out for the remainder of the season, Bynum said. “I didnt know that. I just hope that he gets better. Were going to need everybody for the playoff run.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Browns status was unchanged “unless Kwames talking to guys in the locker room that he hasnt been telling our trainers or myself. Yet Brown again couldnt guarantee that he would be able to return for the playoffs.

That could leave the Lakers starting the 19-year-old Bynum and using a center rotation of Ronny Turiaf and Brian Cook. Bynum played all of two minutes in last seasons playoffs and his recent play has been underwhelming.

“If we had our druthers, Jackson said, “wed rather have Kwame taking the load out there and Andrew doing some things that would be unique and different for a team to have to handle. Its going to be the way it is. We have to deal with it.

Bynum finished with 16 points Monday against Denver – - his most since a Feb. 23 game against Boston – - but played only 19 minutes because of foul trouble. Jackson wants Bynum to split minutes (24 or more) with Turiaf and be more of an inside presence.

“I need to go out there and just be more aggressive, Bynum said. “Thats what everybody keeps telling me. Just start demanding the ball more, and on the defensive end, being more of a help to my teammates, not so much worried about my guy and picking up fouls.

Welcome back: Vladimir Radmanovic practiced for the second consecutive day and said he wants to play tonight against the Clippers. Jackson said Radmanovic had his “moments in practice while Kobe Bryant joked about his new nickname of “Igor.

That would replace “Half-pipe, the nickname given to Radmanovic after his snowboarding mishap over All-Star weekend. Radmanovic suffered a separated shoulder and was fined $500,000 by the Lakers for violating the terms of his contract.

Daughter-in-law? Luke Walton was able to joke about what his father Bills reaction would be to the news – - spawned by a British tabloid, all of it untrue – - that he was dating Britney Spears.

“My dad probably just thinks its true, Walton said. “He probably just thinks I havent told him. Im sure next time Ill see him, hell be like, `Luke, I see you have a new girlfriend.

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Tuesday report

It’s pretty amazing when you look at how Phil Jackson’s 15 previous teams finished the season and compare it to these Lakers. Jackson has a way of getting his teams to peak at the right time but this season’s Lakers are fading by contrast. Here’s the record of Jackson’s team in the last 10 regular-season games.

The Bulls years: 1989-90 (6-4), 1990-91 (7-3), 1991-92 (8-2), 1992-93 (7-3), 1993-94 (7-3), 1994-95 (8-2), 1995-96 (8-2), 1996-97 (6-4), 1997-98 (7-3)

The Lakers years: 1999-2000 (7-3), 2000-01 (9-1), 2001-02 (7-3), 2002-03 (8-2), 2003-04 (7-3), 2005-06 (7-3)

The 2006-07 Lakers have lost six of their last eight games and are 2-4 in what will be the last 10 games of the season. They closed 11-3 last season to get to 45-37. It’s safe to say Jackson never has had a team close a season in such uninspiring fashion.

* * *

Talked to Sasha Vujacic coming off the court Tuesday after his strong game against Denver. Vujacic had six points and three steals in 22 minutes and played the entire fourth quarter. Here’s a mini Q-and-A of sorts.

Q: You hadn’t played in two games before last night and then you get that opportunity. Was that a big deal for you?

A: I was just waiting for my chance. Like I always say, whenever I’m out there, I’m going to give my 110 percent. Sometimes I’m going to get the shots, sometimes I’m going to have to play good defense in order for my team to get the `W.’

What my challenge was yesterday was to kind of slow down their point guards. That was what I was trying to accomplish yesterday. Of course, the most important thing for us in the next few games is we have to play good defense and just execute on offense so we can get a few wins and get the better spot in the playoffs.

Q: You had a really good playoff run last year. Do you think about that ever and do you think you have that same run in you again?

A: I knew last year that coach had huge confidence in me and I just didn’t want to let anybody down. He gave me the opportunity so I grabbed that opportunity and played at the level I know how to play. I’m not completely satisified with how I played last year because if I had played a little bit better, probably would have won.

I’m totally looking forward to the playoffs. Like I said, as long as coach has that confidence in me, I don’t want to let him down.

Q: What needs to change for you guys as a team right now?

A: Just to get a win. We just need to find a way to win. No more excuses, no nothing. We just have to play with our heart and put everything out there. We have to give the Clippers (Thursday) what they gave us a couple days ago.

* * *

Jackson was asked if the Lakers were preparing to resort to simply outscoring teams in the playoffs, given the state of their defense. If you go back to March 1, the Lakers are giving up 108 points on average. To put that in perspective, the Memphis Grizzlies, the NBA’s worst defensive team, are giving up 106.9 points for the season.

“If you play against a team like Phoenix, everybody downplays their defense,” Jackson said. “But theyre actually a very good defensive team. . . .Theyre going to continue to score, so you really do have to outscore them. But youve got to find the defense out there anyway because theres going to be a lot of attempts.

* * *

Kwame Brown’s answer when asked if he was going to play no matter what in the playoffs: “I’m not going to play and hurt the team and further injure myself. But if I can contribute anything and get up and down the court and sustain the pressure on the offense and defense, then I’ll play. If not, I won’t.”

Brown said his bone bruise is slow to heal because of the blood flow in the area. Jackson estimated Sunday that Brown probably would need four months of the off-season to fully recover.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–For the coach with the reputation as the greatest closer in basketball history, with the nine championship rings to prove it, Phil Jackson never has had a team stagger to the finish line quite like these Lakers.

Never in 15 previous seasons has Jackson coached a team that failed to win at least six of its final 10 games heading toward the playoffs. This seasons Lakers would be happy just to win a game after dropping six of their last eight.

They have fallen 1 1-2 games out of sixth place in the Western Conference standings with four games to play. It would take a spectacular collapse for the Lakers not to make the playoffs, but they have a host of issues to address before the season ends.

“This team has to learn some things still, Jackson said. “Were confident we can go in the playoffs and do some things that are good. I dont know if were going to win a playoff series right now, if I was to bet on it. But I would say that were going to play.

The Lakers have done little to improve their standing as one of the NBAs worst defensive teams (giving up 103.4 points per game) and have been a “fourth-quarter enigma, according to Jackson, unable to come through with necessary big plays.

“Thats a big part of it is that were not finding a way to win games that are there for us, Jackson said. “Thats concerning to us and disappointing, and those things all take a little bit out of you.

The Lakers have beaten only one team with a winning record since the All-Star break (at Utah on Feb. 26) and have gone just 14-25 since reaching the high-water mark of their season at 26-13 with a Jan. 17 victory at San Antonio.

Their starting point guard, Smush Parker, has been benched in the fourth quarter of three of the last four games. Their starting center, Kwame Brown, is out with an injured left ankle and could not guarantee Tuesday he would be back for the playoffs.

Their last seven wins have come with Kobe Bryant averaging 47.6 points, suggesting that the only hope in the playoffs will be a one-man scoring show. The problem? Bryant is shooting 41.7 percent (110 of 264) since his spree of 50-point games ended.

If they cant build momentum now, Jackson was asked if he thought the Lakers could do so once the playoffs started. He cited the 1977-78 Washington Bullets (with a forward named Mitch Kupchak) that finished 44-38 yet won a championship.

The Lakers will finish the regular season against the Clippers on Thursday, at Phoenix on Friday, home against Seattle on Sunday and at Sacramento on Wednesday. They would qualify for the playoffs with one win and one loss by eighth-place Golden State.

Jackson said his first priority is keeping opposing teams off the foul line. The Nuggets went 39 of 49 from the line in Mondays victory, yet another night in which the Lakers shot fewer free throws (28) than their opponents made.

Brown update: Brown is bothered by a bone bruise in his ankle and made no assurances about when he would next play. He questioned whether he could get up and down the floor and would not commit to returning for the playoffs.

“Everybody says, `They need me back, they need me back, but Im not going to play if Im going to hurt the team, Brown said. “At this point, I dont think I can do anything to contribute.

Radmanovic back: Vladimir Radmanovic played four-on-four at the end of practice – - sinking a 3-pointer, a midrange jumper and a layup – - and plans on being in uniform Thursday. Whether he will play has not been determined.

The hand injury Radmanovic suffered in October has healed and the shoulder he separated while snowboarding is getting closer to 100 percent. In the meantime, he was asked what contribution he thought he could make.

“I think the contribution I was supposed to make, what I was brought for at the beginning of the season, Radmanovic said. “Its been a rough season for me obviously and really frustrating but Ill try to put everything behind me and have this as a new start.

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Nuggets 115, Lakers 111

Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson gave us a little history lesson in response to a question about orchestrating a playoff matchup. This was not the first time the subject came up this season; Jackson has needled the Clippers for how they played(?) their way into a first-round series with Denver last season.

Jackson said he never had considered doing such a thing and didn’t believe in it. Of course, the Lakers obviously are orchestrating their way into the playoffs right now by losing six of their last eight games. The way things are going, they’ll orchestrate their way out in five games. So it’s a largely a moot point, though an interesting one.

His belief on the subject seemed to have been shaped by an event that happened when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls. Jackson said he believed that Stan Albeck, who coached the team before Doug Collins, was fired because he tried to do such a thing in the 1985-86 season. Turns out, Jackson had his facts a little wrong.

What happened was the Bulls faced a decision about bringing Michael Jordan back from a broken foot in mid-March of what was shaping up to be a lost season. They reluctantly did so, with Jordan’s minutes being so strictly limited that Albeck actually sat him in a game his team was leading by a point with 31 seconds left.

But the Bulls still won six of their last 10 games to make the playoffs. They didn’t qualify for the draft lottery and Albeck was fired after the season. Jackson’s take was backward, that Krause and Co. were playing to win when they weren’t. He said: “They thought you win games you should win and thats the way you should do this game.”

Jackson went on to say that you can’t cheat the fans who buy tickets hoping to see a competitive game. At the same time, he all but promised to rest his starters in next week’s regular season finale against Sacramento if the Lakers are locked into their playoff position.

“I want this team to win games and to do that you have to play at a certain level,” Jackson said.

(It’s also worth noting that the Clippers generated a tremendous degree of positive momentum by beating the Nuggets and advancing out of the first round while the Memphis Grizzlies, who finished fifth, were swept by Dallas and have fallen all the way to being the NBA’s worst team.)

* * *

Smush Parker found himself benched in the fourth quarter for the third time in four games. At least there was a positive to be found in the play of Sasha Vujacic. After not playing in the Lakers’ two previous games, Vujacic finished with six points and three steals in 22 minutes while making a number of big plays.

The Lakers were looking at heading into halftime down by 10 when Vujacic stripped Allen Iverson and fed ahead to Maurice Evans for a 3-pointer at the buzzer. That left them trailing by a more-manageable 65-58. Vujacic also turned another steal into an Evans’ 3-pointer in the fourth quarter as the Lakers’ staged their comeback.

But Vujacic couldn’t catch a break in the end. The Lakers were looking for a stop in the closing seconds with the shot and game clock both in their favor. Vujacic went to trap Carmelo Anthony only to wind up called for a kicking violation, resetting the shot clock (turning it off, more accurately) and forcing the Lakers to foul.

* * *

What a strange, strange game out of Andrew Bynum. He got pulled two minutes into the game after a couple of blown coverages on defenses. Then he gets shuttled back into the game after Ronny Turiaf was twice blocked by Marcus Camby. Then Bynum headed to the bench again after picking up his second foul. All in the first 3:54.

Bynum had a underwhelming first half and the Nuggets took advantage of his mistakes to build a 15-point lead. He threw away a pass, leading to a fast break basket, and then committed a violation on the subsequent inbounds pass. Kobe Bryant fumed a little bit later at Bynum when he didn’t cut to receive a pass.

The second half was a different story, though, for the 19-year-old. With Bryant setting him up, Bynum punched in four baskets in the third quarter. But he also picked up three fouls in six minutes and had to sit midway through the quarter. The Nuggets scored 10 unanswered points in 65 seconds right about then.

Jackson opted to play Ronny Turiaf until he fouled out in the fourth quarter. Bynum came in for rebounding purposes at the very end but checked back out without officially playing a second. His final line? Sixteen points on 7-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds and two turnovers in 19 minutes.

* * *

Lamar Odom thought he had drawn an offensive foul on Nene when the Lakers needed one with 7.1 seconds left. Odom said he tried to “antagonize” Nene by crowding him and was on the receiving end of a quick head-butt in retaliation. Referee Leroy Richardson, though, called both players for a double technical foul.

Luke Walton also was called for a technical late in the third quarter. I’m not sure if I’ve seen Walton pick up a technical in all my seasons on the beat. Walton was furious that he got hit in the face fighting for a rebound only to hear a whistle blow and learn that a loose-ball foul was called on Turiaf.

* * *

The Nuggets could not have played a worse second half against the Lakers’ zone defense. They shot 11 of 39 (28.2 percent) overall and 3 of 15 from 3-point range. So roughly 40 percent of their shots were from long range as they tried to close out a game they led much of the way by double digits.

* * *

My question tonight is which team you as a Lakers fan would rather see in the playoffs. Jackson said he had a preference but wasn’t going to share it.

The Lakers nearly swept San Antonio in the regular season but I think they know how difficult a matchup that would be given the Spurs defense, their championship pedigree and a very limited Kwame Brown to hold down Tim Duncan.

The Lakers are more than familiar with the Suns after last season’s playoffs. Of course, Phoenix is a much different team with Amare Stoudemire back. You had to think after hearing Bryant praise Raja Bell for being one of the few players committed to playing defense that he was just setting Bell up to take him down.

Maybe I’m the only one, but I’ve thought the Lakers would really push the Mavericks. Dallas never plays well at Staples Center (except for that record 36-point victory) and is just a year removed from having Bryant drop 62 in three quarters on them. Plus Odom gives Dirk Nowitzki as much trouble as anyone in the league.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

DENVER–They all but said goodbye to their chances of finishing sixth in the Western Conference standings and said hello their place in history as the team with the worst record in Phil Jacksons Hall of Fame career as a head coach.

But the Lakers did not go down without a fight Monday night, rallying from 13 points down in the fourth quarter, even as their slide toward the playoffs continued with a 115-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center.

The Lakers buried themselves by giving up 65 points in the first half, then staged an improbable fourth quarter comeback. The end result was all too familiar, though, as the Lakers lost for the sixth time in eight games.

They fell 1 1-2 games behind Denver for sixth but the Nuggets clinched the season series tiebreaker by beating the Lakers for the third time since March 15. The Lakers (40-38) still lead eighth-place Golden State and the Clippers by two games.

Even if the difference is negligible between playing Dallas, Phoenix or San Antonio in the first round, the Lakers have been unable to find any momentum as the playoffs draw closer. They will try again with Thursdays home game against the Clippers.

“We can get a hot streak, Kobe Bryant said. “We just want to get to a place where weve got some type of rhythm, weve got some type of accountability. Weve got (four) games here to kind of right that ship. Im confident. Im optimistic that well play much better.

Even if the Lakers win out, they wont match last seasons 45-37 record, which once seemed a foregone conclusion. That was the worst mark of Jacksons career before these Lakers experienced an unprecedented run of injuries and losing streaks.

The Lakers still can clinch a playoff berth with one more victory and one more loss by the Warriors. Whether they will follow last seasons team, which was Jacksons first ever to fail to advance past the first round of the playoffs, remains to be seen.

Jackson has managed expectations since his return last season but didnt sound encouraged when asked before the game if he saw any upsets coming out of the West in the first round.

“Thats a real long shot for us to be able to get something done, Jackson said, “especially with a seven-game series now. It really does make a difference when its a seven-game series. An upstart teams not going to pull off a swift kick.

Bryant finished with 23 points and 10 assists but made just 9 of 30 shots, including a wrong-foot 3-pointer that could have tied the game with 2.9 seconds left. Luke Walton added 19 points, Lamar Odom contributed 18 and Andrew Bynum had 16.

Jackson described the Lakers as being a “fourth-quarter enigma before the game and Monday was yet another example. They got back in the game by turning to a zone defense, then surged in front by scoring 10 unanswered points.

They took their first lead (105-104) since the middle of the first quarter on Brian Cooks 3-pointer with 4:20 left. But they could hold their ground as Ronny Turiaf was stripped on a key possession and Odom and Bryant both missed late free throws.

“That seems to be our problem right now, Jackson said, “is just finishing the game, making `the play or making a play thats a critical play in the game to bring us to that point.

The Lakers had a chance to tie in the final minute but the Nuggets forced the ball out of Bryants hands. He moved it to Cook beyond the 3-point arc only to watch as Cook passed on his shot, then fired the ball to Walton and cut to the basket.

Cook got the ball back but missed his layup with 30.9 seconds to play, saying afterward, “I kind of got shoved on the catch and I tried to kind of half-hook it, half-lay it up. It fell short. I wish I had it over again.

Carmelo Anthony made the second of two free throws with 9.2 seconds left, then fouled Bryant immediately after the Lakers inbounded the ball. Bryants two free throws made it 112-111 but the Lakers couldnt come up with a steal and had to foul Anthony.

The Nuggets star might lose the scoring title to Bryant but he won the battle Monday. Anthony, who finished with 33 points, five rebounds and five assists, made two free throws with 7.1 seconds left to put the Nuggets ahead 114-111.

The Lakers last gasp ended with Bryant launching and missing an awkward 28-foot 3-pointer off his left foot with 2.9 seconds left. Denver won its sixth consecutive game, behind Allen Iversons 24 points and Marcus Cambys 22 rebounds and seven blocks.

Somewhere along the line, the Lakers are going to have to play defense to win in the playoffs. They showed how much they missed injured center Kwame Brown in allowing a season-high-tying 65 points on 61.5 percent shooting to the Nuggets.

While Camby blocked four shots in the first quarter, the Lakers had no defensive anchor. They gave up all manner of layups and fast break baskets and left Jackson no option but to employ a zone defense to stop penetration in the second half.

The Lakers gave up 32 points in the first quarter, 65 in the first half and 92 by the end of three quarters. It did little to improve the Lakers chances of not finishing the season ranked among the NBAs worst defensive teams, giving up 103.4 points per game.

“We just want to start winning games because winnings contagious, Walton said. “If you go into the playoffs losing, then you dont really have anything youre building on.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

DENVER–No matter what team the Lakers wind up facing in the playoffs, the scouting report in regard to Lamar Odom likely will read the same: Play him to shoot.

As he plays through a torn labrum in his left shoulder, Odoms shooting has unquestionably suffered. After Mondays game against Denver, Odom has made 4 of 28 3-pointers and 49 of 80 free throws since returning from the injury.

Thats 14.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 61.3 percent from the foul line, when the game stops and Odoms shoulder begins to tighten. Odom missed a key free throw Monday with 1:59 left and a chance to put the Lakers ahead by two.

“Ive really been trying to focus on getting my shot off the dribble because my arm lacks a lot of strength, that I really need rhythm, Odom said. “Im really trying to put the ball on the floor, use my ability to handle the ball to get my jump shot off.

Odom added: “The strength is just not the same. The more I stand still, the weaker it feels. So I figure if I can dribble into a nice little rhythm, itll kind of help it a little bit.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he been vocal with Odom in recent games, yelling “Why? when his forward launched an ill-considered 3-pointer. Playing with the injury, Jackson said Odom has a “responsibility to take good shots.

“He knows that the rest of his game is very, very good right now, Jackson said. “That part of his game, well see where it takes him as he goes through the playoffs. Hes still working on his therapy, getting his shoulder loose and able to shoot.

“Hes been working on his shooting a lot actually. So were hoping it improves. He still has to try it out. He still has to make a threat out of it.

Brown update: Kwame Brown did not make the trip to Denver and underwent an MRI exam Monday on his injured left ankle. Brown reported a different pain in the ankle – - the exam revealed no additional damage – - and might not return until the playoffs.

“We may just have to sit him out, Jackson said. “That may be the recommendation that we get. A lot of it will be up to him. Im not going to encourage him unless we say like, `Hey, come out in Wednesdays game if were playoff bound and play a half so you get in a game rhythm so you feel like youre ready to go in the playoffs at full strength.

Jackson said he considered “just for a second starting Ronny Turiaf with Brown out and Andrew Bynum struggling before deciding against the move.

He conceded that it would give the Lakers “obviously our best, most active team but its not whats going to win the game for us in the fourth quarter. Jackson said that Turiaf, because of his nagging hip soreness, “doesnt have a 40-minute game in him.

Also: The Lakers plan on having Jordan Farmar play a third and final game with the development league D-Fenders on Thursday but will limit his minutes. . . .Jackson expects Vladimir Radmanovic to return from his separated shoulder Sunday against Seattle.

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