- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Los Angeles Lakers limped into the Chesapeake Energy Arena on Friday nearly seven months after their season ended here last spring in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals.
That night, after the Oklahoma City Thunder disposed of them and before the Lakers would enter an uneasy offseason filled with questions to be answered, Kobe Bryant declared that he and his team were not heading into obscurity.
"I'm not fading into the shadows, if that's what you're asking," Bryant said. "I'm not going anywhere. We're not going anywhere. ... Come hell or high water, we're going to be there again. There's just something about the Lakers organization."
The new-look Lakers returned Friday to where Bryant made his bold remarks. They did indeed use the offseason to revamp and retool and bring in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to their starting five and Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks to their bench.
But, after a 114-108 loss to the Thunder that dropped the Lakers' record to just 9-11, are the Lakers back to being championship contenders, or are they still incapable of getting back to the title throne?
"It doesn't seem like it, but I do," Bryant said after the game when asked whether he thinks the Lakers have answered his call. "I do. I think we have to shore up a few areas execution-wise, but I think we'll be fine."
Judging the Lakers' season up to this point is a little like judging their performance against the Thunder.
Yes, they have nearly a $100 million payroll, are two games under .500 and wouldn't qualify for the playoffs if the regular season ended today, but they still have three-quarters of the season to grow and will welcome Nash (fractured fibula), Pau Gasol (knee tendinitis) and Steve Blake (abdominal surgery) back into the lineup to help them on their way.
Yes, they allowed the Thunder to score 41 points in the second quarter and shoot 52.9 percent on 3-pointers for the game, and saw Kevin Durant (36 points) and Russell Westbrook (33) go berserk on their defense. But the Lakers managed to cut the deficit to just four points in the final minute, and got great games from Bryant (35 points), Howard (23 points, 18 rebounds) and Meeks (17 points), and did it without two of their studs (Nash and Gasol) on the court.
"I don't want to get really excited [about] how hard we played. Effort is something that should be there every night, but I think tonight after the game, guys felt pretty good about how hard we played and I think they liked that feeling of playing that hard," Bryant said. "So hopefully, today was a good example of what we need to do, the effort we need to play with, what that feels like, and that will carry over the rest of the season."
The Lakers went into Friday's game with a meager 2-5 road record and having lost two of their previous three games in gut-wrenching fashion, to play a Thunder team that had won six straight by an average of 18.9 points and was 9-2 at home.
And they competed tooth and nail.
"We didn't give up. We fought back," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I'm very encouraged by how they're hanging in there mentally and physically. We'll be a better team."
According to Metta World Peace, the Lakers already are a better team than the one that was knocked out by the Thunder last season.
"We have a better team this year," World Peace said, despite the fact the Lakers started last year's lockout-shortened season 11-9 through the first 20 games. "We have a much better team this year."
Before Bryant's declaration to the media last season, World Peace went around the locker room following the Game 5 loss, demanding that each player come back next season better prepared and in better shape. He demanded it of himself, too. Now World Peace says he believes the Lakers have the right pieces. They just need more time to fit the puzzle together.
"Obviously we got the best team in the NBA, but we just got to go out there and play together," World Peace said.
Howard wasn't on last season's team, so that squad that featured Andrew Bynum and Ramon Sessions is irrelevant to him. He just knows what he has seen so far this season, and he too found solace in the loss.
"This team has just gotten together," Howard said. "It's not like we're going to go out and get together and start winning right away. The only team that I've seen do that was Boston a couple years ago. We're learning how to play together. We're getting better. This is not on anybody's timetable but ours. We have to be patient and understand it's a process. We grew tonight despite the loss."
After Friday morning's team shootaround, Bryant was asked about the time that has passed since the playoff series loss that seems so far away although it was really only at the end of May.
"It's been a short period since then, but it's been a long one," Bryant said.
And the Lakers made the shortest bit of progress Friday but still have a long way to go.
7hMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo
4dIan O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer