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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Saturday report

However you rank personality traits, the ability to laugh at yourself has to be high on the list. In Vladimir Radmanovic’s case, it’s good to see that he didn’t lose his sense of humor in addition to the $500,000 subtracted from his bank account after his snowboarding mishap over the All-Star break.

We know this from an exchange at the end of Saturday’s practice. Radmanovic was one of the last players off the floor as he worked on his shooting in the hopes of returning from his separated shoulder Thursday. He stopped to answer a couple of questions about how things were going in the recovery process.

I told Radmanovic that we missed him in Seattle, where he spent the first 4 1-2 seasons of his career. Not surprisingly, Radmanovic said he didn’t really miss making the trip. The only thing Radmanovic can count on more than the rain in Seattle are the questions about the $42 million extension he turned down with the Sonics.

Radmanovic was told that it was a rare day of sunshine and record temperatures in Seattle. Alex McKechnie, the Lakers’ athletic performance coordinator and a British Columbia native, then added that the views of snow-covered Mount Rainer were spectacular.

To which Radmanovic didn’t miss a beat in saying, “Didn’t you see me coming down?” As in snowboarding down the side of another mountain. After missing seven weeks with the injury, Radmanovic probably needs to make a joke or two at his own expense.

As for his return, Radmanovic still has yet to take part in contact drills. He hopes to do that Tuesday and/or Wednesday depending on the Lakers’ practice schedule and return Thursday against the Clippers.

A couple of weeks ago, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he thought Radmanovic might have some problems launching his patented “30-foot 3-pointers,” as he described them, with the separated shoulder. Radmanovic was asked Saturday if he was having any trouble shooting the long ball.

“I think Ill be able to do that,” Radmanovic said with a grin. “Ive been working hard the last almost two months. Its not going to be easy but its definitely not going to prevent me from doing what Im supposed to do on the court.

We’ll see how quickly Radmanovic can get back into rhythm with four games left before the playoffs. He was wearing a shoulder pad underneath a compression shirt at practice Saturday.

* * *

Whether the result of Kwame Brown’s injured ankle or Andrew Bynum’s ineffectiveness, Ronny Turiaf has been the Lakers’ fourth-quarter center in recent games. He plays well with Kobe Bryant and brings an energy to the floor but Jackson said he wasn’t considering starting Turiaf ahead of Bynum.

Jackson of Bynum’s starter minutes: “Those kind of minutes are important for us to have early to set a tone for an interior game, get something inside, see if we cant get something accomplished in there in the post early in the game. We havent been able to lately.

Kwame Brown said of Bynum’s lackluster play: “I dont think its anything else but his confidence. He had all sorts of confidence at the beginning of the season when I went out. I dont know where that went. I dont know what hes got to do to get it back. Thats what he needs. Its not his game, its his confidence.

* * *

Smush Parker’s streak of consecutive starts is still alive. Parker is going to start his 158th consecutive game against Phoenix despite sitting the entire fourth quarter of the last two games. Jackson said he thought Parker had enough of a positive history against the Suns (I guess except for the 2006 playoffs) to warrant the start.

* * *

Updated after Denver’s victory Saturday against the Clippers

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–As far back as December, Lakers coach Phil Jackson can remember talking to his assistants about how the final full week of the regular season would play out for his team. Every game seemed to bring with it playoff possibilities even then.

He couldnt have been any more right as the Lakers will open a set of four games today that likely will determine their playoff direction. The Lakers will play Phoenix twice as well as Denver and the Clippers in the next six days.

“Its a great opportunity for us, Kobe Bryant said. “This is like a playoff atmosphere type of games.

The Lakers no longer sit alone in sixth place in the Western Conference standings after Denvers victory over the Clippers on Saturday night. The Nuggets and Lakers share an identical 40-36 record with the Clippers 2 1-2 games back in eighth.

The other question is which of the conferences three powerhouses – - Dallas, Phoenix or San Antonio – - the Lakers would draw in a first-round playoff series. As the sixth seed, the Lakers have been on track to face the Spurs for the better part of a month. [ep

At the same time, the Lakers could fall into seventh and meet the Suns in a rematch of last seasons first-round series. The Suns hold a two-game lead over San Antonio for the Wests No. 2 seed.

Jackson was able to joke about the conventional wisdom that the Spurs could catch the Suns because Phoenix has the more difficult schedule.

“Those people that thought they had a tougher schedule included us in the schedule, Jackson said. “I said, `Youve got to remember who we are right now. We havent beat teams over .500 in a long time. This is our challenge right now.

The Lakers will play host to Phoenix today and then play at Denver on Monday. They will meet the Clippers in a home game Thursday before traveling to Phoenix for the second game of a back-to-back set Friday.

Brown back? Jackson joked about the coaching staff setting odds that Kwame Brown would be able to overcome his sprained left ankle and play today. The consensus was that Brown would sit out his third game since re-aggravating the injury.

Brown made quite the fashion statement after Saturdays practice, wearing a pair of Gucci shoes but with a web of athletic tape wrapped around his ankle.

“I havent counted myself out yet but it still hurts, Brown said. “Ive been playing with the pain the whole time. If it improves a little more like it did (Friday) night, I can try to play (today).

Record keeping: The Lakers would have to win five of their last six games just to match last seasons 45-37 record. That was the worst record of any Jackson-coached team, which led to a question about whether this season has been his most trying.

“It hasnt been the kind of season where everythings a downer for us, Jackson said. “We had a really good three months when we started the season. We played well. We felt good about ourselves.

“My goal is to get them back playing where they were the first 40 games. Theyve still got an opportunity to do that, so were trying to be real optimistic about it.

Also: Jackson will keep Smush Parker in the starting lineup despite benching him in the fourth quarter of the last two games. Jackson said Parker was “responsive at practice . . . Jordan Farmar will pull double duty and play in the development league again Thursday . . . .Vladimir Radmanovic is hoping to return Thursday from his separated shoulder.

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Lakers 112, Sonics 109

Even if he is playing his final games as a Laker, Smush Parker is still going to be much-needed come playoff time. He’s going to draw (most likely) either Tony Parker or Steve Nash in a seven-game series, and I highly doubt Phil Jackson would entrust a rookie guard in Jordan Farmar with those minutes in his first taste of the playoffs.

So the fact that Parker’s spending fourth quarters on the bench isn’t a positive development. It’s on Parker to find a way out of this funk . . . and he’s shown he’s not exactly the best at “resetting himself,” as Jackson puts it, whether that’s in a game or falling into a black hole against Phoenix in last season’s playoffs.

Here was what advice Kobe Bryant said he would give Parker: “You’ve just got to stay with it. Everybody goes through ups and downs but you’ve got to stay with it. You’ve got to get in early, work on your game, work on your shots, try to get your ryhthm back by working extremely hard on the practice floor.”

Parker’s comments giving up trying to read Phil Jackson in the wake of his fourth-quarter benching against the Clippers also caught Bryant’s attention. His response might have been one of the most dead-on things he has said all season.

“At this point in time in the season, you want to focus on what’s really important, which is us,” Bryant said. “It’s not a particular individual or not getting minutes or whatever it may be, but understanding that what Phil’s going to do, he’s going to do what’s right for the team.

“That’s what he’s going to do. It’s his job as a coach to make sure the ship is moving in the right direction. Us as players have to understand that it’s nothing personal. We’re on the same team. We’re in this thing together.

“He’s going to make decisions that are appropriate for us to win ballgames. If we can understand that and put our egos aside, we’ll be fine.”

Jackson was irate in the second quarter when the Lakers came out of a timeout trailing 53-43 and Parker simply lost his handle on the ball and watched it skip out of bounds in front of the bench. Total mental lapse. The Sonics got a Mike Wilks jumper at the other end to go up by 12 points, which was their biggest lead of the game.

“I wanted Smush to come out, get an opportunity to prove himself and to play tonight,” Jackson said. “Things didn’t go well for him either shooting or the playmaking aspect of it. So I figured it was time to make a change out there and Jordan came in and played well.”

Parker said after the game that winning was the only thing that mattered and that he and Jackson talked a little before the game. “Jordan did a great job off the bench,” Parker said. “He came in and gave the team a spark and coach played him because he deserved to be out there.”

* * *

Jackson was less than pleased with the Lakers play near the end of the second quarter. He brought Bryant and Parker back with 4:49 to play (Cook was forced to play center with Andrew Bynum and Ronny Turiaf in foul trouble) and the Lakers promptly gave up a 16-4 run to fall behind by 12.

The Sonics did a good job of hitting the 3-pointers and running out for the dunks that energize their team. The Lakers couldn’t even get a timeout called to stop the run; Lamar Odom was stripped by Earl Watson as Jackson walked on the court in anticipation of the dead ball.

All Jackson could do was stand there as Watson flipped the ball of the backboard to Chris Wilcox (32 points, 18 rebounds) for a dunk. “We had about a three-minute breakdown in the end of the second period that changed that ballgame,” said Jackson, who had talked to his team about burying themselves with big deficits.

* * *

Odom hit a couple of long jumpers to start the game and went on to finish with 20 points and seven assists. Jackson cited Odom’s play on defense in holding Rashard Lewis to nine points (which is 13 below his season average) on 4 of 14 shooting.

Odom also was part of a funny moment four minutes into the first quarter when he scored as part of a three-point play. He lost his gum, however, at the line to shoot the subsequent free throw. It was scooped up by one of the referees and tossed to the sideline before any player could ruin a pair of Nikes.

A less funny moment: Odom bricked two free throws at the end of the first quarter, which prompted Jackson to yell, “Jesus!” from the bench. Did I mention that there is a convention of athiests at my hotel in Seattle? Today’s featured event was a keynote speech: “Does it matter if Americans hate athiests?”

* * *

You wouldn’t want to overlook the shots Brian Cook hit early in the fourth quarter to give the Lakers their first lead of the second half. Cook actually wound up shooting a technical free throw when the Sonics were called for defensive three seconds and Bryant was sitting on the bench.

Cook, a 75 percent free-throw shooter this season, missed the shot in the unfamiliar role. He came back, though, to hit two big 3-pointers and finished with 11 points. Cook had to play some center because of foul trouble and shook off a 2-of-8 first half.

* * *

Two areas of concern for the Lakers: They did give up 109 points to a Seattle team playing without Ray Allen. The Lakers went zone late in the third quarter and watched Damien Wilkins hit a 3-pointer against it. They jumped a screen-and-roll with Farmar and Odom and still wound up watching Earl Watson hit a 3-pointer.

But the Lakers were able to come up with the stops they needed late. They also found a way to win despite getting outrebounded 50-31. You could see Jackson screaming for anyone to just grab the ball.

* * *

The Lakers’ schedule is absolutely unforgiving the next week with two games against Phoenix and rematches with the Nuggets and Clippers. “We want to go into the playoffs with some type of rhythm, with some type of energy,” Bryant said. “So we’re looking forward to these upcoming games.”

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

SEATTLE–There was nowhere to go but down for the Lakers in the first half of Friday nights game against the Seattle SuperSonics, when they couldnt even call timeout without coughing up the ball and giving up a rim-rattling dunk to Chris Wilcox.

As sunny as it was outside Key Arena, it was grim inside for the Lakers, who fell behind by a dozen points and facing the prospect of ceding sixth place in the Western Conference standings to Denver with six games left in the season.

It took 46 points from Kobe Bryant – - 31 in the second half – - and a pair of grown-up performances from youngsters Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf for the Lakers to escape with 112-109 victory in what might as well have been a must-win game.

There were issues to address for sure – - starting with whether Farmar will supplant Smush Parker in the starting lineup – - but the Lakers were able to move forward after disappointing losses to the Nuggets and Clippers this week.

It was a victory that only grew in magnitude after word circulated in the Lakers locker room that Denver had upset Dallas. The Lakers still lead the Nuggets by a half-game for sixth and are two games ahead of the eighth-place Clippers.

“Were just going to have to keep on going, keep on pushing, Turiaf said, “because the guys behind us, I can guarantee you, theyre getting into fifth gear.

For the second consecutive game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson sat Parker the entire fourth quarter. Farmar finished the game on the floor and was joined by Turiaf as starting center Andrew Bynum went scoreless with four fouls in 12 minutes.

It was hard to argue as Bryant credited Farmar and Turiafs energy with turning around the night. Farmar hit a 3-pointer after entering in the third quarter, took a charge, threw a full-court outlet pass to Luke Walton and came up with a key steal late.

His performance was greater than his final line in the box score – - 3 points, 1-of-2 shooting, 2 assists – - and will force Jackson to consider whether the Lakers might be best served with Farmar starting in place of Parker.

Asked if the job was open, Jackson answered: “I havent said that and I wont answer your question. Parker has started 157 consecutive games, one of the longest such streaks in the NBA.

Farmar, who was sent to play for the Lakers development league affiliate to get minutes this week, said his only goal was to stay on the floor and help his team win. He laughed when asked if he would welcome the chance to start.

“Without a doubt, Farmar said. “Thats what my ultimate goal is to be a starting point guard here. Whether its Sunday, next year, two years, three years from now, however long it takes, Im working to try to get to that goal.

Parker made just 1 of 5 shots and had five turnovers in 24 minutes. Jackson wanted to give Parker the chance to redeem himself after his fourth-quarter benching Wednesday against the Clippers. Instead, Parker sat the last 16 minutes of Fridays game.

In addition, Parkers comments at practice Thursday about giving up trying to read Jackson were not taken well by his teammates, if Bryants words after the game were any indication.

“At this point in time in the season, you want to focus on whats really important, which is us, Bryant said. “Its not a particular individual or not getting minutes or whatever it may be, but understanding that Phils going to do whats right for the team.

“Its his job as coach to make sure the ship is moving in the right direction and us as players have to understand that its nothing personal. Were on the same team. Were in this thing together.

The Sonics tied the game 103-103 with 1:55 left as Earl Watson went crashing into Turiaf and earned a trip to the foul line. Turiaf ended up the worse for wear as Watson caught him in the mouth with an elbow.

Bryant answered with a 20-footer over Damien Wilkins and Watson. Then came a series of defensive plays as Farmar stripped Rashard Lewis, Turiaf came up with a steal and Walton forced Nick Collison into a tough shot with 25.3 seconds left.

Bryant finished with 46 points on 13-of-27 shooting and went 19-of-24 from the foul line. He scored 20 points in the third quarter and was on the receiving end of a flagrant foul by Collison on the fast break.

There was no showdown for Bryant against Ray Allen, his sometime nemesis, as Allen is done for the season with bone spurs in his left ankle and will undergo surgery today. The Sonics also lost Luke Ridnour to a sprained left ankle in the first quarter.

But Seattle took advantage of a mental letdown by the Lakers to build a 12-point lead in the second quarter. Even when Jackson wanted a timeout, Lamar Odom lost the ball to Watson, who raced ahead and set up Wilcox for a dunk with a pass off the backboard.

The Lakers were able to recover, however, and wont find another soft spot on the schedule for a while. They will play Phoenix twice as well as Denver and the Clippers in the coming week, when the games will be played at a fever pitch.

“It all depends upon us winning, Jackson said. “Who (wants) to back into the playoffs? We want to win. We want to do what we have to do to play ball so that were playing well. Its not about who else does what out here, although thats important.

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Saturday report

Hope you’re having a good afternoon/evening watching the Final Four. Phil Jackson’s picks, in case you’re interested, are Georgetown and UCLA.

The Lakers were left talking about Friday’s overtime loss to Houston, a game that looked “impossible” to win in regulation, as Jackson put it, and then seemed “impossible” to lose in overtime. Of course, the Lakers did lose as the result of a couple of calls, a couple of missed free throws and a couple of blown defensive assignments.

“(The Rockets) got to win a game without earning it, basically,” Jackson said. “They (the Lakers) have to know how critical that is and how critical it is to finish a game.

As we were walking out the door, a team spokeswoman told us that Jordan Farmar would be playing in Sunday’s D-Fenders game. He’s going to be the first same-day call-up in NBA Development League history. The Lakers will recall Farmar after the game and have him in uniform when they play Sacramento.

Not sure if Farmar has had/will have the chance to practice with his teammates-for-a-day. The D-Fenders are fighting for a playoff spot and it can’t hurt to get Farmar some minutes since his role has been so reduced. Maybe he can get that spark back with an extended run of 30 minutes or so.

This is the first time the Lakers have taken advantage of their arrangement with the D-Fenders, who run the same triangle offense and share the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. Luke Walton was joking after practice Saturday that Andrew Bynum might be a potential ringer if the D-Fenders ever play for a championship.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–Thanks to an inventive tape job by trainer Gary Vitti, Lakers center Kwame Brown looked like a different player in the first quarter of Fridays game, even finding the strength in his injured ankle to sky for a follow-up dunk.

Brown eventually wore down after a night of banging with the immovable object that is Houstons Yao Ming but not before he managed to block one of Yaos shots and strip him of the ball as the Lakers made their fourth-quarter comeback.

Then Brown was fouled intentionally by the Rockets with 15.5 seconds left in regulation and looked very much like his old self. Brown bricked both free throws only to be bailed out by Kobe Bryants miracle 3-pointer.

Brown was able to joke Saturday at practice that “Me and Kobe, we planned that, but the question is if other teams wont follow the Rockets example and force the 43.1 percent foul shooter to the line late in games.

Although Brown wasnt expecting the immediate foul, the Rockets did the same thing twice in the last four minutes of regulation of a double-overtime loss to the Lakers on Dec. 15.

“Ive just got to be ready to step up there and hit the shots, Brown said, “because I was shooting the ball pretty well from the free-throw line (5 of 6) before that.

Asked about having confidence in Brown late in games, Lakers coach Phil Jackson asked reporters: “Whats his shooting percentage? He was told it was in the 40s, and even worse in the fourth quarter.

“Hes probably going to shoot about 40-some percent, Jackson said. “Thats why theres percentages. The percentages are pretty good that hes going to miss 1 out of 2.

Brown finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks in one of his most productive games of the season. Vitti found a way to tape Browns left ankle so that he wouldnt suffer pain because of a pre-existing bone spur.

“I felt great. I felt normal for once, Brown said. “There was no pain when I turned for my jump hook. As the game went on, it wore down. But if I can start games like that, Ill be fine because everybodys not as big and heavy as Yao Ming is.

Farmed out: The Lakers will make rookie guard Jordan Farmar the first same-day call-up in NBA Development League history today. Farmar will play for the D-Fenders in this afternoons game against Anaheim at Staples Center.

Then he will be recalled and will be in uniform for the Lakers game against Sacramento. The D-Fenders are in the stretch run of their season with only six games remaining.

Farmar hasnt gotten off the bench in three of the Lakers last six games. Under NBA rules, the Lakers can assign their first- or second-year players to the D-Fenders up to three times in any season.

Understanding Artest: Lamar Odom has known Sacramentos Ron Artest since they were both teenage basketball stars in New York. Odom also once questioned whether he would play again after the death of his infant son Jayden last summer.

So Odom said he could understand why Artest would send text messages to his Kings teammates two weeks ago telling them he was planning to retire after the season. Artest was arrested March 5 on domestic violence charges.

“Sometimes as athletes, our lives are of course under a microscope, so when things are not going the way you want them to go off the court, it can feel overwhelming, Odom said. “I can see why someone could feel like that.

“Ron is still young and he still has a lot to give as far as basketball and I hope thats not the case. . . .Hes human at the end of the day, no matter what people may think. Some of us, you see us as these figures that cant be beaten down, but thats not the case.

Also: Jackson said he expects Maurice Evans (sore knee) and Brian Cook (sprained ankle) to return tonight. The Lakers got only six points from their bench Friday.

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Thursday report

My ears perked up on the drive home from practice when I heard Jim Buss was going to be calling in to 570-AM this afternoon. Buss is his fathers designated successor when it comes to basketball operations; Jeanie Buss will run the business side of things.

We had an opportunity to sit down with Jim, whose official title is vice president of player personnel, in the summer of 2005. Jerry Buss met with the beat writers before he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame back in October.

Here are some of the highlights of the 20-minute interview. Probably the most newsworthy comment came at the end, when Buss suggested that the Lakers are poised to make a major free-agent signing in the future.

“Those things start way before a player becomes available, Buss said. “Everything we do is planning to be in a position if you can get an All-Star-caliber player to help your team go to the next level. You have to have it planned out years before.

Buss set a timetable for the Lakers of making a major acquisition within the two seasons after this one. The Lakers already have $58 million committed for next season which is either right at or over the projected salary cap.

That doesnt take into account what they would spend to re-sign Luke Walton, Smush Parker, Chris Mihm or Shammond Williams. They could upgrade using the $5.5 million midlevel exception available to all teams and are free to make whatever trades they can.

“Mitch (Kupchak) is very good at watching the cap and so am I, Buss said. “We have a plan to move forward and when somebody drops the ball and drops one of their All-Star players, were there to get them. You don’t go over the cap like some of these other teams and be mediocre. That’s like the cardinal sin in my book….

What you do is you manage your money until you can spend it on the right thing. And it will happen. It will happen maybe next year or the year after but its going to happen. And when that happens, then we go right back to winning championships.

This comment will do nothing to quell speculation that the Lakers expect Kevin Garnett to either force a trade or opt out of his contract in the coming years. Garnett can opt out after next season but he would be walking away from $24 million

Weve also heard this talk about two- and three-year plans before. The Lakers were maintaining flexibility to sign Amare Stoudemire, Yao Ming or LeBron James in recent summers before all three players opted to re-sign with the teams that drafted them.

The Lakers have only three players (Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radmanovic and Brian Cook) signed for the 2009-10 season, when they could have a chunk of cap space after Lamar Odoms contract expires. Keep in mind that Andrew Bynum is up for an extension that could pay him $10 million or more beginning in that season.

* * *

Buss also took issue with the Shaquille ONeal deal being the so-called “worst trade in the history of sports.

“Youve got to look at it as, well, yes for the first two years, Buss said. “No for the many years afterwards because weve got to put ourselves in a position to get a player like that.

* * *

Buss on whether he thinks the Lakers can win a championship with the current roster:

“The way I look at it is I believed last year this current roster could win it this year. The way things are going, its going to be very difficult because we didnt home court. Wed have to go through Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio – - all three of them – - to get to the Finals.

“If we had played without the injuries that we sustained, then I think we would have had a home-court advantage and we wouldnt have had such a tough road to get to. And yes, I would believe this team is good enough.

* * *

Buss on Bynums development:

“As far as Andrew Bynum is concerned with me, he is still ahead of the curve that I wanted him to be on. Were missing a (competitive) fire but hes 19 years old, hes learning the game, hes getting banged around.

“Even Kurt Rambis had told me last year, when this guy gets banged around enough, hell start to get angry and thats when his fire will come up.

* * *

Buss on Radmanovics snowboarding accident and the resulting $500,000 fine:

“If we voided the contract, I think it would have been a large legal battle, and we never thought of doing that.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–In the three seasons he has played for Phil Jackson, Lakers forward Luke Walton said he never had seen his coach as furious as he was Wednesday the morning after an inexcusable loss to Memphis.

“The thing is, he doesnt get angry that much, Walton said. “I mean, Im sure he does inside but hes always trying to stay on that middle ground. You could see in his face he was really upset yesterday.

Jackson blistered the Lakers for giving away a game to the Grizzlies in the middle of a playoff push. He sent his players home early, telling them to get away from the game, with orders to return Thursday ready to work.

The true test wont come until tonights game against Houston, but Jackson said the team had a good practice. Jackson also framed the Memphis game for his players as letting down the coaches, the fans and themselves with their lack of effort.

“We talked about how you motivate each other in a ballgame, Jackson said. “I felt the leadership to drive our team was missing because Kobe (Bryant) was missing his shots and no one else was willing to step up or take that action.

Bryant said Jacksons words had gotten through. The Lakers still lead Denver by 2 1-2 games for sixth in the Western Conference standings with 11 games to play.

“I think guys came back today ready to practice, Bryant said. “We had a good practice today and hopefully itll translate over to the game.

Proven commodity: Even though he admits that an ankle injury probably took him out of the running, Walton appreciates being mentioned as a candidate for the NBAs Most Improved Player. The Lakers have promoted Walton for the award in their game notes.

Walton went into the off-season knowing that he could showcase his range of skills if he could just shoot more consistently. A career 41.5 percent shooter his first three pro seasons, Walton has made 47.5 percent of his shots this season.

He has averaged 11.5 points (up from 5.0 last season), 4.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists while starting all 49 games in which he has played. His value to the team can be measured simply: the Lakers are 31-18 with Walton in the lineup and 7-15 without him.

Walton has been so indispensable that Jackson likened him to being the “yeast in bread for the way he encourages team play. For the time being, Walton is still trying to get back up to speed after missing 21 games with a sprained right ankle.

“Its still frustrating because I feel like I lost a lot of conditioning when I got hurt, Walton said. “My ankles still not strong enough to where I can constantly get in the lane and make aggressive plays, so its one of those things where I have to pick and choose.

Defensive minded: Bryant will have to earn every point tonight against a Houston team ranked second in the league in scoring defense and first in field-goal percentage defense. The Rockets give up 91 points a game and can use Shane Battier to guard Bryant.

“Theyre great contesting shots and getting into peoples bodies, Jackson said.

The Lakers are hopeful Kwame Brown will be able to overcome his injured ankle and give them minutes against Yao Ming. Brown went through half-court drills in practice, Jackson said.

Scoring king: Carmelo Anthony all but conceded Bryant his second consecutive scoring title, telling the Denver Post: “If he’s going out there throwing in 65 points like that, he can have it. It’s all fun and games winning the scoring title. It’s an individual accolade.”

Bryant is averaging 30.8 points to Anthonys 29.0. Jackson suggested last week that an exchange with Anthony during the Lakers March 15 loss at Denver provided some of the motivation for Bryants headline-making run of 50- and 60-point games.

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Wednesday report

There’s wasn’t much to say after Tuesday’s loss and there’s not much to report after Wednesday’s practice-that-wasn’t. Phil Jackson brought the team together in El Segundo and sent them home after a half-hour. What he told his players probably wasn’t too different from what he told the few assembled reporters.

“By the nature of the game that they played last night, I was disappointed in their play,” Jackson said, “and they should take themselves away from the game for a day and come back tomorrow ready to play.”

In case you were interested, here’s the list of 15 finalists for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2007, which will be announced Monday. Given that Jackson’s picture is on the front of the Hall’s Web site right now, it seems safe to say that he’ll be getting in.

NORTH AMERICA COMMITTEE

Players: Adrian Dantley, Chris Mullin

Coach Bob Hurley (St. Anthony’s, N.J.), Phil Jackson, Eddie Sutton, Roy Williams

Contributor: Bill Davidson (Pistons owner), Dick Vitale,

Referee: Mendy Rudolph

Team: 1966 Texas Western

WOMEN’S COMMITTEE

Coach: Van Chancellor (Ole Miss, Houston Comets), Harley Redin (Wayland Baptist University, six AAU national titles)

INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE

Coach: Pedro Ferrandiz (Real Madrid), Mirko Novosel (Yugoslavian national team)

VETERAN’S COMMITTEE

Player: Richard Guerin (six-time All-Star)

A finalist needs 18 of 24 votes from the honors committee to be selected. There were six people in the Class of 2006, headlined by Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins. The enshrinement takes place Sept. 6-8 in Springfield, Mass., and we’re just hoping that Jackson will speak either before or after Dick Vitale.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–Lakers coach Phil Jackson had sat through too many losses this season to teams with records that look like target demographics (18-54) to let what happened Tuesday against the Memphis Grizzlies pass without comment.

So Jackson brought his players together the morning after the end to their five-game winning streak. Instead of holding practice, Jackson said a few words and sent them home with orders to clear their minds and return Thursday ready to work.

After sweeping aside so many similar losses, Jackson could not do the same with the playoffs only three weeks away. Not after the Lakers built a 15-point lead in the second quarter against the short-handed Grizzlies and then called it a night.

“I let them know it wasnt OK with me today, Jackson said. “Thats not the way we act or the responsibility of being a Laker or being a team thats headed for the playoffs. Thats what the other teams that are out of the playoffs are doing.

“This is a playoff drive were in right now and we have to step up our competitive level every night if were going to meet the demands that are needed in a playoff.

“My problem with them is that when we get a few wins in the course of this year, weve become lackadaisical and havent kept the same intensity drive as we go into a game and well lose games, particularly to teams that have been under .500.

“We just cant take a night off as a basketball team and expect to win any games at this point.

If injuries have been the primary storyline to the Lakers season, then inexplicable losses might be secondary. The Lakers have dropped two games apiece to New York, Milwaukee, Charlotte, New Orleans, Portland and Memphis.

Jackson said he was disappointed with Tuesdays game on two counts. The first was that the Lakers failed to build on the 15-point lead and let the Grizzlies, who own the NBAs worst record, gain confidence the longer they stayed in the game.

The Lakers did the same thing against Golden State on Sunday, giving back what had been a 19-point lead before rallying in the fourth quarter. It was enough of a pattern that Jackson mentioned “sustaining the effort multiple times Wednesday.

In addition, the Lakers were unable to pick up for Kobe Bryant, who made just 7 of 26 shots in finishing with 23 points. One problem is that Lamar Odom has been unable to trust his shot since returning from a shoulder injury.

“Hes playing great basketball, Jackson said of Odom, who is 0 for 15 from 3-point range in seven games back, “but somebody else has to step in there and play a little bit of the second fiddle on the scoring aspect.

Brown update: Although Kwame Brown was a late scratch from Tuesdays game, Jackson said he believed his injured center would be able to play Friday, when his size will be needed against Houstons Yao Ming.

“He came and talked to me today and said he feels like hell be able to play, Jackson said. “Hes been a big help for us in this situation where were going down the stretch and we need a guy with his activity level and his physical bearing.

Brown tried re-taping his injured left ankle three times before the game, Jackson said, before deciding seven minutes before tipoff that he couldnt play.

Fame game: For all they have been through, Kobe Bryant laughed in calling it a “no brainer that Jackson would be selected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Halls Class of 2007 will be announced Monday and Jackson is one of 15 finalists.

“Hes at his best in building chemistry for a team, Bryant said, “and building a cohesive unit. Hes the best Ive ever seen.

Bryant added that it was “ludicrous for Jackson to face questions about the championship-ready teams he inherited with both the Chicago Bulls and Lakers.

“Name me a coach thats won a championship with bad players, Bryant said. “What are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to take a team that was 30 games below .500 and turn them into a championship team without making any adjustments whatsoever?

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Grizzlies 88, Lakers 86

Dear Greg Oden and Kevin Durant:

Who knew that the perfect situation was waiting for you here in the NBA? Assuming the pingpong balls bounce as they should, one of you will be playing for the Memphis Grizzlies next season. The same team that just beat Kobe Bryant’s Lakers on Tuesday. Maybe Pau Gasol will even rescind his trade demand and stick around.

What an inexcusable loss for the Lakers. The calendar is about to flip to April and the Lakers still shrink when they see a zone defense. Even though Memphis interim coach Tony Barone said afterward, “We don’t like to play zone,” he hardly could have stumbled onto a better strategy.

Earlier this season, Lakers coach Phil Jackson dismissed the zone as being a “soft” defense. Now his team has lost three games (Detroit, Milwaukee and Memphis) where the opposing team has played zone the bulk of the time. It has been easier said than done for the Lakers to create penetration, move the ball and get inside against it.

The Lakers had all of six – - yes, six – - points in the paint in the second half. They took 19 3-pointers in the third and fourth quarters. Jackson said the Lakers went over how they would play against a zone at the morning shootaround. Of course, that was with Kwame Brown on the floor instead of the trainer’s room.

It takes a discipline to break a zone that the Lakers don’t have. They missed Brown’s interior passing, as Jackson cited after the game. They also missed having Vladimir Radmanovic to rain 3-pointers and force the Grizzlies out of that zone. Radmanovic separated his shoulder in a snowboarding accident over All-Star weekend.

Odom was asked why the Lakers struggle so much with a zone. They have used the zone here and there at times this season, usually springing it on teams coming out of timeouts, but they never have committed to using it for long stretches the way some other teams do.

“Most NBA teams do (struggle),” Odom said. “When you’re playing against a zone, you have to lock down on the other end. Usually teams that play zone, they get real comfortable offensively. Why? Because they don’t have to play man-to-man defense.”

Barone said of Bryant’s 7-of-26 shooting night: “We didn’t limit Kobe. What happens is Kobe limits his points depending on the number of shots he takes and we didn’t do anything special. . . .I think when you start doing special stuff, which we tried the last game we played them, he’ll tear you apart.”

Jackson dismissed the idea of teams tanking games to improve lottery position beforehand. He can always point to Tuesday’s loss whenever he’s asked about that topic again. The Grizzlies put a lineup of no-names on the floor and dispatched the Lakers when they had every incentive to lose.

* * *

All those hours on the 405 going to the Summer Pro League seemed worth it when Tarence Kinsey and Junior Harrington both started for the Grizzlies. Both played in Long Beach last summer and went on to make the Memphis roster. They also came through with big nights against the Lakers, a tribute to undrafted players everywhere.

Kinsey finished with 24 points, hit the go-ahead 3-pointer and had to have the thrill of his life – - his bio lists his favorite player as Bryant. Harrington played all 48 minutes and 13 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Bonus points if you can name which player went to South Carolina and which to Wingate.

* * *

Jackson was disappointed with how Andrew Bynum responded when he was thrust into the starting lineup at the last minute when Kwame Brown was unable to go on his sprained ankle. Odom threw a sweet behind-the-back pass but Bynum was unable to finish around the basket in the opening minutes. He made just 2 of 7 shots overall.

For the second consecutive game, Ronny Turiaf played all the fourth-quarter minutes. Turiaf made a number of big plays in Sunday’s victory over Golden State but missed both shots he took and had three fouls Tuesday. He’s your crunch-time center, though, until further notice.

* * *

The Lakers shot just 11 free throws and Jackson couldn’t resist a swipe at the referee crew of Joe Crawford, Marc Davis and Gary Zielinski, saying, “Pretty low on that end of the stick. I don’t know if there wasn’t any fouling going on tonight or if it was just one of those nights, one of those crews that said, `We’re not going to call any fouls,” so they didn’t.”

Sasha Vujacic had a nice run in last season’s playoffs and the pressure’s on for him to start making shots. He went 3 of 8 from 3-point range Tuesday but missed two midway through the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies took advantage, with Rudy Gay running out for a dunk and a 79-74 lead after the second one.

Vujacic did come back and drill a 3-pointer with Smush Parker waiting at the scorer’s table to replace him. Parker missed all four 3-pointers he took in the fourth quarter, including what could have been the game-winner in the final seconds.

* * *

We’ll see if Gasol faces any action from the league office after flailing his arm and hitting Bryant in the face in the second quarter. Bryant had slapped the ball out of Gasol’s hands from behind when Gasol swung his left arm and caught Bryant square. Bryant, who stayed in the game, was twice suspended for plays like that earlier this season.

* * *

The only other team to lose to Memphis twice this season is Charlotte. The Bobcats swept both games from the Lakers this season. Bryant said the same thing about the Grizzlies as he did about Charlotte earlier this season: “Thank God they’re not in the playoffs.”

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

Never in the three seasons since the Shaquille ONeal trade have the Lakers been able to stretch a winning streak past five games. All that stood in their way Tuesday night was a game against a Memphis Grizzlies team counting the days to the draft lottery.

Even that was too tall an order, though, as the Lakers were snapped back to reality in an inexplicable 88-86 loss to the Grizzlies, who brought the NBAs worst record (17-54) to Staples Center and were playing without two injured starters.

Only five days after he ripped the Grizzlies for 60 points, the fourth-highest scoring game of his career, Kobe Bryant didnt even come close to another milestone number. He finished with 23 points and made just 7 of 26 shots.

“It was just one of those games we couldnt get our rhythm, Bryant said. “Everybody has games like that and we had one tonight.

Bryant finished the game flat on his back, his turnaround jumper with a chance to tie in the final seconds having been swatted by Pau Gasol. Worse than that, the Lakers were stopped dead in their tracks of what had been a compelling playoff push.

“We can set ourself up either to play a seven-game series or get swept, forward Lamar Odom said. “If we go out there and play like that, its easy to get swept by good teams. If we go out and play the way we know we can play, we can push any team to seven games.

After giving back what had been a 15-point lead in the first half, the Lakers still had a chance to win on the final possession. Hakim Warrick split a pair of free throws and Lakers coach Phil Jackson diagrammed a final play for Smush Parker, not Bryant.

But Parker came up short on an open 3-pointer from the corner. The rebound bounced right to Bryant, who had his turnaround jumper blocked by Gasol with 1.9 seconds left and time expired on the Lakers five-game winning streak.

So did Bryants run of putting up numbers not seen since the days of Wilt Chamberlain. The Lakers had an early clue that things would be different when Bryant stepped to the line and clanked two free throws to start Tuesday’s game.

Bryant had been averaging 53.6 points and shooting the lights out the last five games. But the Grizzlies dug in with a zone defense and swarmed Bryant with defenders every time he touched the ball.

“It really was not a very good game, Jackson said, “but Kobes due to have a game where shots didnt go down and he wasnt shooting the ball well. Those odds are going to function a little bit in that regard.

The result? Bryant was outscored 24-23 by undrafted rookie Tarence Kinsey. The Grizzlies, hoping to win the rights to draft Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, were playing Tuesday without Mike Miller and Damon Stoudamire, both out with knee tendinitis.

The Lakers blew a chance to move three games ahead of Denver in the standings and solidify their hold on sixth place. Instead, they showed that they were not above a loss to a Memphis team that has not won consecutive games all season.

They also learned only seven minutes before introductions that center Kwame Brown could not get his sprained left ankle in shape to play. Andrew Bynum started in his place but Jackson said the 19-year-old center wasnt up to the task.

The Lakers also had no answers for the zone Memphis played, scoring just 14 points and making 5 of 23 shots in the third quarter. Bryant missed all six shots he took in the quarter as the Grizzlies took a 68-63 lead into the fourth.

“At some point, I felt like the team was relying on Kobe to do all the scoring, Jackson said, “and nobody could pick it up once they kind of figured he wasnt going to make shots.

As much as the fast start gave them false hope, the Lakers still had numerous chances to win late. Odom and Ronny Turiaf both had shots blocked in the last 3 1-2 minutes. Odom split two free throws and had a rebound bounce off his hands and out of bounds.

Luke Walton knocked down a 3-pointer to tie the score at 81-81 but Kinsey answered with a 3 at the other end. It proved to be the go-ahead shot after Odom missed a 3 of his own, leaving him 0 for 15 from long range since returning from a shoulder injury.

Odom filled up the box score with 16 rebounds and 11 assists but made just 1 of 7 shots and scored only three points. Jackson said afterward that Odom was willing to do all the other things but wasnt looking for his shot.

Parker missed a 3-pointer with 13.9 seconds left and a chance to tie – - the Lakers were 13 of 35 from beyond the arc – - and Kinsey hit two free throws to give Memphis an 86-81 lead and enough cushion to hold on.

It was the Lakers second loss to Memphis this season. Only Charlotte has suffered the same indignity.

“We wont sleep too well tonight, Bryant said. “But you have to use that as motivation and just gear up and get ready for the next one.

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Monday report

I heard this quote from Robert Horry on “Pardon the Interruption” and wanted to see in just what context it was said. This is what Horry told San Antonio Express-News columnist Mike Monroe for a Sunday story on Kobe Bryant’s chances of winning the NBA MVP award:

“Nobody’s going to vote for Kobe because of the perception about his attitude, that he’s arrogant,” said Horry, who also stressed that he considered Bryant a good teammate. “It’s going to be a while before he ever wins MVP. I hate to say that, because it’s MVP on the court, not MVP off the court.”

Let me say up front that I don’t have an MVP vote . . . or at least I haven’t my first two seasons on the beat. But there’s no player I see more than Bryant and it seems obvious to me (and probably everyone in Los Angeles) that the Lakers would be in the draft lottery if it wasn’t for Bryant. That seems like one standard for being an MVP.

Here’s another: As I wrote Sunday, if the Golden State Warriors are going to take credit for holding Bryant to 43 points, then he should be the unquestioned MVP. If Bryant played baseball, he’d be Barry Bonds getting intentionally walked by opposing managers a hundred times a year. And Bonds is a seven-time MVP in his sport.

It’s a shame that a de facto standard has emerged whereby a player needs to come from a team that wins 50-plus games in order to merit MVP consideration. Bryant is unquestionably the biggest game-changer in the NBA regardless of whether the Lakers finish with 44 or 46 or 48 wins. The same would be true if they finished 39-43.

Obviously, the worse his team’s record, the more extraordinary such a player’s accomplishments should be. In Bryant’s case, he has seven 50-point games this season. The rest of the NBA has accounted for eight such games (Gilbert Arenas has three, Michael Redd two, Jamal Crawford, Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton one).

To his credit, Bryant has tried to do everything right this season. You have to remember that he sat out all of the exhibition season and the first two regular-season games while recovering from knee surgery. That he is able to finish the season this way is – - to borrow one of Phil Jackson’s favorite words – - remarkable.

He shot less and looked for his teammates more when the Lakers were on their way to a high playoff seed. Then he watched the bottom fall out due to injuries. His run of 50-point games pulled the Lakers out of a seven-game slide and bought time for Luke Walton and Lamar Odom to play their way back from injury.

The suspensions afforded everyone the opportunity to see what they wanted to in Bryant. If you’re a Kobe fan, then you saw the league singling him out for plays that lacked obvious intent and happened in a split-second. If you’re a Kobe hater, then you saw him as a dirty player and, worse, a repeat offender.

Behind the scenes, No. 24 has been a seemingly different person. It’s an oversimplification to say that, but he has gone above and beyond in talking to reporters. He continues to promote his work with the Boys and Girls Club, Make a Wish Foundation and his own Vivo Foundation. He was celebrated throughout All-Star weekend.

All I’m saying is that it would be a shame for Bryant to arrive at the end of his career, having written his name alongside Chamberlain, Jordan and Baylor so many times in the record books, only to have never won an MVP award. Until then, I guess Bryant will have to settle for the unofficial title as the game’s best player.

* * *

Just for fun, I asked Bryant what number he thought he might put up when he scored nine points in the first two minutes of Sunday’s game.

His answer: “I wasnt really thinking about it. I actually said, `Theyre going to have to make some serious adjustments. Just in the middle of the first quarter, after the second timeout, I said, `Theyre going to have to do something drastic. Because the crowd was getting into it, we as a team had jumped on them, every shot I hit seemed to be creating a lot of momentum for us.

It’s hard to see how the Grizzlies will keep Bryant under 50 points Tuesday unless the game is such a blowout that he doesn’t need to play late. That wouldn’t be the worst thing; Bryant is averaging 46.6 minutes in the last five games.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–Even as Kobe Bryants run of 50-point games came to an end Sunday, the Lakers were left with another streak to consider. That would be the 10 consecutive games in which they have allowed 100 points or more.

For the team that stressed defense from the first day of training camp, the Lakers are riding a season-high five-game winning streak solely by being able to outgun teams. So far in March, they are giving up 110.1 points on average.

“The one positive thing is we have been coming up with the stops when we need them down the stretch, Luke Walton said. “But giving up 110 points a game isnt going to make anything easy for us, and its definitely not going to win us a playoff series.

All the Lakers have to do is consider their probable first-round opponent to understand how important defense will be. The San Antonio Spurs are third in the Western Conference standings and came into Monday allowing 83.5 points this month.

Not only does Bryant credit San Antonios Bruce Bowen with being the toughest defender he faces but he praises the Spurs for playing the best team defense in the league.

The Lakers, meanwhile, have been unable to build any cohesion on defense with the injuries that have forced one player after another out of the lineup. Kwame Brown, in particular, is still limited after returning from a sprained ankle.

There were encouraging signs for the Lakers in the fourth quarter Sunday as Ronny Turiaf blocked shots and Lamar Odom turned a steal into a layup. Yet the Lakers also gave Golden States Al Harrington a look at an open 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Asked if the Lakers could still be a good defensive team, Bryant answered: “We have the personnel to be able to do it and do it collectively. The thing that really hurt our rhythm as a defensive unit was having all of these injuries.

“Having the guys back now, it seems like were trying to build a little bit more rhythm on the defensive end, Bryant added. “I think well get to a point where well be more consistent.

Kobe show: Five days after scoring 60 points against Memphis, Bryant might be in for another big night with the Grizzlies in town. Not only does Memphis rank 29th in the NBA in defense, but it will be playing the second game of a back-to-back set.

“What we want to try to do is just continue to put pressure on the defense, Bryant said. “Its not necessarily me scoring 40 or 50 points but its making the defense adjust. Now when we match up against teams, they understand that theyre going to have to deal with the issue of me being aggressive. Its going to compromise their defense somewhat.

Follow up: Part of the explanation for Bryants scoring burst comes with a change in how he shoots the ball. Bryant said he switched from a two-finger release to a one-finger release. He could be seen on the bench practicing his form during timeouts Sunday.

Fame game: Assuming that 915 coaching victories and nine championships are enough, Jackson will be introduced as part of the Basketball Hall of Fames Class of 2007 on Monday in Atlanta.

With the Lakers playing three games in four days, however, Jackson has told the Hall that he would not be able to travel for the announcement before the NCAA Tournament final.

Jackson said: “Its either an award for longevity or its acknowledgment of the (Chicago Bulls) teams that I was able to be a part of that really were remarkable in their duration in the 90s and then this team here in this century thats just been playing great basketball.

Injury report: Vladimir Radmanovic shot around for the first time since separating his right shoulder while snowboarding in Utah over the All-Star break. He was limited to shooting a series of short bank shots before climbing onto a treadmill.

Jackson said he hoped Radmanovic could return the week after next, although he described it a “technical injury to a guy whos a 3-point shooter. One benefit of the time off for Radmanovic is that a finger injury on his right hand has healed.

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