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As Lakers spiral, bright lights await

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LA Hot Button: Are the Lakers still title contenders?

ESPNLA Now host Mark Willard answers the hot question, are the Lakers still title contenders?

If you look closely at Kobe Bryant these days, really close, there are two long, raw scratches across his forehead. In person you can't miss them. But even on television, if you watched his lengthy, soul-bearing interview with Stephen A. Smith on Wednesday, it's hard to miss the pink flesh atop his forehead that's just now starting to scab over.

It's hard to know whose fingernails cut into him, or even when. The first time I noticed was at his locker Sunday night after Bryant scored another magnificent 34 points in an otherwise lifeless 117-110 loss to the Utah Jazz that feels like a million years ago after the Lakers dropped another one in Cleveland on Tuesday, then boarded a plane for New York City for a game Thursday against the Knicks.

When I gestured to the scratches and asked how he got them, Bryant shrugged his shoulders and exhaled but did not answer. Who cares? This season has already left him with more scratches and gashes than are worth counting. The ones that expose a little flesh are the least of his worries.

His Lakers, the same Los Angeles Lakers who opened the season as everybody's pick to steamroll the league until waging an epic clash with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, have been laid bare. Exposed and embarrassed by teams such as the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers who shouldn't be able to beat them, much less keep up with them. And now, in a cruel bit of timing, they've reached what feels like rock bottom with a game against the hottest team in the league on what will always be the biggest stage in the NBA. So no, those aren't the scratches about which Bryant is concerned.

"I'll endure anything to win," he told Smith. "My body is beat up after every game. … Right now, it's just figuring out how we want to play."


It sounds simple. Too simple for a team this talented. Sure, Steve Nash is still out for God knows how much longer and Pau Gasol's knees are aching as badly as his spirit must feel after the most ineffective stretch of his career. But between Bryant and Dwight Howard, the Lakers still should have more than enough talent to get through this stretch with their heads above water.

Instead they're drowning, trying to plug their fingers into new holes every game even as the water leaking from the old ones flows faster and more destructively. It's baffling.

If there were answers out there, they would've found them already. Between Bryant, Gasol, Nash, Howard and head coach Mike D'Antoni, there's too much experience, wisdom and basketball IQ in that locker room for the whiteboard to be so clean.

It's not speed or athleticism either, although a little more of both would make things easier.

No, this has gone so badly, so quickly, it's not so much answers that the Lakers are looking for anymore. It's a belief. That this can still work. That they're not all crazy. That they're not all flawed.

"Togetherness," Bryant said. "Finding a way to play that maximizes each other's talents. I believe we have the intelligence to do it. Mike is very, very smart. Steve obviously has a high basketball IQ. Myself, Gasol, we've all been there before. We know how to conduct this thing. It's just a matter of figuring that out."


Bryant's response in moments such as this has always been to work harder. To push himself further, hope others follow, then prod them if they don't. But even that's not working right now.

"I'm a bit of a psychopath," he told Smith. "I don't expect my teammates to have that level of concern. But I hope that they're feeling determined and not discouraged. This moment is where you have to dig deep and become more determined and say by any means necessary we're going to get this thing done, we're going to turn this thing around."

In some ways, now feels like the time to turn inward and get quiet. Rack his brain and his basketball soul for some bit of inspiration or explanation. He has been at this a long time and seen everything. Phil Jackson left an imprint that changed him forever. There are things Jackson taught him that he hasn't even fully learned yet.

But after the loss to Cleveland on Tuesday night, Bryant had to bring in outside counsel, calling, among others, Lakers greats Magic Johnson and Jerry West.

Is he missing something? Had he been pushing too hard? Is now the time to pull back?

"Sometimes you can want something so much that it slips away from you because you're holding on so tight," he said. "We can't allow frustration or urgency to kind of choke the process."

If he has a flaw, that's it. He'll try to will his team places and to victories that just might not be meant to be. But that's a premise he's not willing to accept just yet.

"I like what we have," he said. "It's just a matter of finding the balance of how we're going to play."


Going back to New York for the first time since resigning as the Knicks coach was never going to be all that pleasant for D'Antoni. Going back under these circumstances, with the Lakers reeling and the Knicks rolling, is downright excruciating.

But he's a grown man who makes a lot of money to do a grown man's job, and he's just going to have to take it Thursday night. The boos, the headlines, the mocking signs in the Madison Square Garden crowd, all of that is coming. But like the scratches on Bryant's forehead, those aren't the gashes he's feeling right now.

D'Antoni just got this job a month ago, but it already feels as if it's slipping away from him. He came back to coach Nash again, to take another shot at winning it all after leaving Phoenix too soon. In a cruel twist of fate, Nash is close by on the bench in street clothes but seemingly no closer to returning to the court as nerve irritation in his left leg has slowed the recovery process from a freak injury in the second game of the season.

On his first day in L.A., D'Antoni joked he'd probably start feeling better from reconstructive knee surgery about the same time Nash started feeling better. Like everyone else, he assumed Nash was "at most" a week away at that time. But now when people talk about Nash's return, every estimate begins with an "at least" and people around the league whisper that one more setback could cost Nash the rest of the season.

For weeks, D'Antoni has been saying all this will make sense once Nash comes back. He's that important. And darn it, D'Antoni needs it to start making sense to everyone so badly he's starting to see things that aren't there. Twice now he has hinted that Nash might return, only to admit later that he was just hoping it might be so.

"I hate it," D'Antoni said after the loss in Cleveland. "I'm down. Right now we're all screwed up."

So screwed up that everything has come under suspicion: his offense, his philosophies, his character, his ability.

Is D'Antoni flawed? Is his system? Why can't he adjust to the Lakers' personnel? Is he just being stubborn? Or stupid? Can Nash really make that much of a difference?

It's unfair, but too much is at stake for the Lakers this season for anyone to worry about fair. That this withering criticism is coming to a peak as he comes back to New York to find the Knicks thriving in an offense that looks a lot like the one he taught them while all of a sudden committing to and believing in the virtues of defense, well, that's just swell. Just add it to the pile.

But dismissing the timing of this game as just an ironic coincidence is missing something. A lesson, perhaps?

"Mike said when he got here, to us, it's going to be a learning experience for me as well," Bryant told Smith. "He said, 'If you feel like I'm not using you to your strengths, let's talk about it and we can figure it out.'

"Mike is a very smart coach. He's not a man that is stuck in doing it one particular way. If it's not working, I'm sure he's open to mixing things up. I know that. He wants to be successful more than anything. It's not just about implementing his system. The end goal is to win a championship. It's not playing a certain way."


We're talking, of course, about Gasol. How D'Antoni has been using him and whether that's eventually going to work. Thus far it has been a disaster. D'Antoni has tried to bend Gasol to his will, to jam him into places on the court he's not comfortable, and it has blown up on both of them.

Gasol tried to do it D'Antoni's way. He's selfless that way. But nothing that has happened so far has given him reason to have faith. And now he's out resting his sore knees.

If that sounds a little like the struggle D'Antoni had in getting Carmelo Anthony to buy in and play the role his system dictated, particularly after Linsanity erupted, you're listening closely.

Bryant is determined not to let this one play out the same way, with the organization backed into an uncomfortable choice between coach and star player.

"Pau needs to be in the post more, for sure," Bryant told Smith. "We spoke about that. When he gets back, he'll be in his sweet spots for sure."

But that kind of support comes at a price. Gasol has to work on some things, too.

"Everybody knows how I feel about Pau. He's like a brother to me," Bryant said. "But even outside of that, the basketball skill set he brings is unmatched. Now, it's on him to make sure he comes back in tip-top form. That his mind is in the right place, to play with the aggression and the moxie that he played with in 2010."


In the end, they've all got to bend into roles they may not have chosen for themselves, in ways that might not make sense at first. The Lakers just can't break.

Their flaws have all been laid bare. Exposed, uncomfortably, before any of them ever expected to be tested. Just watching Howard shoot a free throw these days is to see a man confronting all sorts of demons. All the angst and ill-will from the past two seasons have him in knots. His confidence from the free-throw line is in the tank. He shoots the ball as though he wants to get rid of it as soon as possible.

"He's working on it," Bryant said. "I think that, as of late, has kind of touched a nerve for him. I think he's realized this is the one thing that's holding him back."

The stage lights will be warm again Thursday night. They always are inside the Garden. Howard will undoubtedly have to shoot free throws. Bryant will have control the urge to do too much. D'Antoni will have to figure out how to compromise without feeling as if he's surrendering. Nash and Gasol will be in street clothes, still watching from the bench.

The New York fans will be relentless. The Knicks will be too, mocking them with their play, their togetherness, their belief in themselves and how they all fit together.

"You get to a stretch where you kind of have that cloud hanging over your head and you have to get more and more determined to turn the tide," Bryant said. "The normal determination that you play with is not going to work; it's not going to change the momentum that the opposition is feasting on now."