Lakers try to smile through the pain

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
11:25
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It was the kind of night that was so frustrating that the Los Angeles Lakers could only laugh in the postgame locker room to keep themselves from crying.

Here they were, back in the city that started the franchise's reign of dominance over the league for the last 60-plus years and there they looked as vulnerable and pathetic as they've ever appeared in those seven decades.

[+] EnlargeJodie Meeks
Brad Rempel/USA TODAY SportsJodie Meeks was the latest Laker to suffer an injury, as he went down with a sprained ankle early in Tuesday night's game at Minnesota.
Tuesday's result wasn't so much about their 109-99 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves marking L.A.'s seventh straight defeat, 19th loss in their last 22 games overall and the 15th straight game they've allowed the opponent to score 100 points or more, as it was the team exiting the normal torture chamber that is life as a losing team and entering into the theater of the absurd.

On the same day the Lakers finally welcomed Steve Nash and Steve Blake back to the lineup for the first time in months, the team saw two more players added to the injury list by halftime as Jodie Meeks suffered a sprained right ankle and Jordan Hill collided with his own teammate, Chris Kaman, knocking him out of the game with a headache and cervical strain in his neck.

That's not even mentioning that Blake ruptured his right ear drum in the first half and played through it.

When asked about the prospect of flying to Cleveland later that night and dealing with the cabin pressure pounding on his punctured ear, Blake shrugged it off.

"Maybe it will hurt," Blake said. "Who knows? Who cares? I'll just get on a plane."

It was with the same casual tone that Nick Young summed up the season for the Lakers, who have lost two out of every three games they've played en route to a 16-32 record with 34 games left.

"Somebody must have put a hex or a curse on us or something," Young said.

Which brings us back to the laughter. When things start to feel helpless, often times the human condition will step in and relieve some of the stress with humor, if only as a survival technique. And so, the Lakers' locker room after the game Tuesday took on more of the feel of a merry wake than a funeral.

Hill, still stiff from his in-game collision, looked like a big, tattooed robot walking around in nothing but his boxer shorts when Lakers assistant Larry Lewis came over to check on him, causing Hill to blink his eyes extra wide and animated like a ventriloquist doll, trying to get the straight-laced and genuinely concerned Lewis to crack a smile.

Kaman, sitting at his locker, joked as he scanned his phone through the hundreds of text messages he received expressing surprise that he had played. It broke his streak of seven straight "Did Not Play – Coach's Decision."

Which next led to Kaman, Robert Sacre and Lakers equipment manager Carlos Maples all taking turns making fun of themselves and one another for their bald heads. "I look like Shane Battier or Scottie Pippen," Maples said of his wrinkled dome. "Nobody wanted to see what I had going on up there," Kaman said of his old, straggly hairstyle. "I looked like Dan Gadzuric, I had to shave mine," said Sacre of the short curls he used to don as a rookie.

Even Manny Harris, who could have had every reason to be upset or angry after the team informed him before the game he would not be retained for the rest of the season once his second 10-day contract expired Wednesday, couldn't help but smirk at the irony of him going out and putting up 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting and eight rebounds as basically a dead man walking.

[+] EnlargeSteve Nash
David Sherman/Getty ImagesSteve Nash played for the first time since November and although the Lakers lost again, Nash said there was a part of him that felt like a kid again.
"Not knowing whether you're going to stay or you're going to go, you're kind of scared to make mistakes," Harris said. "It's always better when you know either you're going to stay or you're going to leave. It's always better."

Which was kind of the same attitude shared by Nash, who seems to know his time as an NBA player, or certainly his time as a Laker at least, will be finished at the end of this season. And so if he has to relish that time on a team with a .333 winning clip that's tied for last place in the Western Conference, so be it. He'll relish it just the same.

"For me personally, I feel a bit selfish in that we lost, but I felt great just to play in the NBA again and be out there with my teammates," said Nash after looking sharp, finishing with seven points on 3-for-6 shooting, nine assists, one steal and only two turnovers in 25 minutes. "Obviously the game didn't go as well as we had hoped, but for me personally, it's pretty cool to be back out there."

Nash, who said he hasn't felt right playing in an NBA game in more than 10 months, has already clearly trained himself to take the glass-half-full approach. So, even if the Lakers trailed by as many as 25 in the first half, he still had the little victories of helping them cut an 18-point deficit to seven when he was leading the charge in the third quarter.

He still had the satisfaction of having one of the game's bright young point guards in Ricky Rubio unintentionally slamming into him in the backcourt in the first half and not having his body break down the way it did when the same thing happened with Portland's Damian Lillard last season. He still had the familiar routine of cheering after the national anthem, even though he's Canadian, and then slapping five with all of his teammates before tip-off. He still enjoyed that moment when he sprinted toward the Wolves bench after a loose ball and all the Minnesota players looked at him like, "Come on Steve, we know you're not diving for that one at 39 years old," when he slowed up. He still had a couple of beers on ice in his locker after the game, because if you're going to have to fly to Cleveland for a meaningless game in the middle of a snowstorm in the dead of winter, you might as well crack a couple of cold ones on the ride.

"It's been a tough road, but tonight there's a part of me that feels like a kid, like a rookie that got to play in the NBA and that's a pretty cool feeling," Nash said. "It was a cool experience regardless of the result. We've just had so many tough bounces in the last year and a half. It's our reality, we just have people in and out of the lineup and the roster and we just got to keep plugging away."

These Lakers might not have come any closer to learning how to win, but they’re certainly learning how to cope.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Kobe Bryant
PTS AST STL MIN
24.6 5.0 1.4 35.4
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 8.3
AssistsK. Bryant 5.0
StealsK. Bryant 1.4
BlocksE. Davis 1.2