- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- After Kobe Bryant downplayed the Los Angeles Lakers' modest success in going 10-9 without him, saying Monday, "It's not like we were gangbusters before," coach Mike D'Antoni came to the defense of Bryant's teammates.
"I have to disagree with that," D'Antoni said after Tuesday's shootaround in advance of the Lakers' game against the Phoenix Suns. "We were 6-2 in the last eight [games before Bryant's return] and I thought we played extremely well, winning three [in a row] on the road. ... So, that's not quite right. I'm really proud of what the guys did."
Whether the difference in opinion has more to do with Bryant's elevated standards as a five-time champion than it does with him disparaging his teammates is open to interpretation. But even D'Antoni had some critical remarks for the team Tuesday.
"Our defense is fairly good," D'Antoni said of the Lakers, who are 19th in defensive efficiency, allowing 102.4 points per 100 possessions. "We can be better, always be better, but in the paint we're awful and we've got to get tougher."
L.A. is second to last in the league in points allowed in the paint, giving up an average of 47.3 per game, which bests only the 4-19 Utah Jazz's 47.7 per-game average.
"We got to get a little more strong there and we got to get back [in transition]," D'Antoni said. "It's a combination of things. It's turning the ball over; we got to quit doing that. We got to run back on defense; we got to do that. And once we're down there, we got to defend the paint better. If we want to be a good team and we want to get better, then that's definitely a point of emphasis."
Despite identifying rim protection as a weak spot, D'Antoni is going with a smaller unit against the Suns, moving Robert Sacre to the bench for Shawne Williams and Wes Johnson to the bench for Jodie Meeks.
"We got to get more speed in there," D'Antoni said of the changes, which will constitute the Lakers' ninth starting combination through 21 games. "Until Kobe gets his legs and everything else, I think we need to spread the floor and make it easier on everybody."
D'Antoni said part of the shuffle was matchup related, with Phoenix starting a stretch 4 in Channing Frye in the frontcourt. Bryant will still play combo guard on offense, but on defense he will be matched up against small forward P.J. Tucker.
"We're back to square one in figuring out the best combinations with Kobe in the lineup, how that works and who plays off of who better," D'Antoni said. "It will take a few games to sort that out, but in the meantime we need to win and we need to play hard, and if we do that, it will take care of itself."
One of the players who struggled to find his rhythm in Bryant's return was Steve Blake, as he failed to register five assists or more for just the fifth time all season (finishing with four) and also scored fewer than five points for just the third time (finishing with three on 1-for-6 shooting) against the Toronto Raptors.
"It will be a little bit of a challenge, but I was [playing off the ball] in the beginning of the year when [Steve] Nash was playing," Blake said. "I'm going to have to try to get comfortable with that situation again, hopefully sooner than later."
Now the Lakers go back about their business of reintegrating Bryant and seeing if they can indeed start playing like gangbusters with him back.
"It's difficult," D'Antoni said. "If it was anybody else it would be kind of tragic if you had to, but it's Kobe Bryant. We're happy to do this. It's just the necessary process that we have to go through."