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Narrow Wins, Ugly Losses Add Up to One Long Month

We’ll spare you any lame Christmas metaphors, forgo any attempt at extended descriptions of the perplexed look on Phil Jackson’s face, and cut to the Laker coach’s most relevant words following his team’s 99-87 loss to the Houston Rockets on Thursday.

“We’re not a very good team right now,” Jackson said.

Something happened to the Laker championship parade route.

They made a detour off Easy Street and turned down a pothole-filled alley.

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At the beginning of the month, the Lakers were about three weeks away from causing the rest of the league to go cower in the corner. They blew out Memphis, Washington, San Antonio and Indiana by an average of 23 points at Staples Center, then went down to Texas and beat San Antonio and Dallas on consecutive nights.

It was about to reach the point where teams wouldn’t even bother to fight back. They’d just make a quick concession speech and drop out like a last-place finisher in an early presidential primary.

Instead it was the Lakers who turned in early. They stopped playing all-out, stopped exerting their will, stopped punishing opponents.

Teams such as Utah and Denver, who should be preoccupied with wondering whether they can make it to the playoffs at all, left Staples Center feeling that they could compete with the big boys. And those were the victories.

It’s become hard to differentiate between the wins and the losses. The Lakers give up 50- and 60-point halves with regularity. They don’t defend, they don’t run the offense.

Among the many questions are whether the newcomers can learn and execute the offense, if they can figure out Kobe Bryant -- or if Bryant can know quite what to expect of himself.

They need him, but they can’t always count on him.

One NBA insider whose opinion I highly respect said Bryant is the key to the Lakers’ season.

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He certainly told the story of their game Thursday.

Bryant took only two shots (missing both) in the first quarter, when the Lakers fell behind 33-19. He made four of seven shots in the second quarter to keep them in the hunt, then had a run of four of six, plus two assists, as the Lakers stormed back from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter.

But in the fourth he kept firing away, making only one of seven shots, to finish nine for 26 in the game.

“Third quarter, I made some shots, brought us back into it,” Bryant said. “Fourth quarter, I couldn’t make a shot, Shaq couldn’t make a shot, Devean [George] couldn’t make a shot, nobody could throw the ball in the ocean. That’s why we lost -- aside from the fact that our defense [stinks] right now.”

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That’s a whole other column.

For now we’ll look at Bryant.

He has been fighting through illness for more than a week, and the congestion was evident in his voice Thursday night.

Of course, we all know the much more serious issue he’s been fighting every day since July.

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Bryant has been examined as never before. His eyes, his demeanor, his weight are all examined for any sign of how he’s coping with the sexual assault charge he’s facing in Colorado. Because he’s in demand so much, he occasionally pulls the drapes open into his private world, allowing a little more light in than he has before. But then he rushes to close the windows.

He acknowledged that at times he gets distracted during games, then sought to minimize the effect.

“I don’t want to put overemphasis on it,” Bryant said. “It doesn’t deter me. It’s there and then it’s gone.

“It’s there. But whatever. It’s not a big deal.”

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When asked whether he knows what he can offer on any given night, whether the energy level is consistent, he initially answered “Naw,” then jumped on the second part of the question and said: “Energy-wise I feel good.”

Certainly his springs are close to being back. Even if he couldn’t deliver a poster-worthy dunk over Yao Ming as he did last season, he still was good for an alley-oop shot in which he appeared to pause in midair during the first half, plus a hanging, Yao-bumping layup in the third quarter.

But he doesn’t have his pulse on his game enough to sense when the hot streak is over and it’s time to move on.

His teammates appear confused about what to do as well.

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“I think they know that at the end of the game Kobe’s going to shoot the ball,” Jackson said. “Game-ending situations, that’s when he wants to step up and shoot the basketball. I don’t think that’s any mystery to them. It’s just finding out what they’re going to do about the offense that disintegrates around that activity, how to accommodate that in the right way.”

One thing they might want to try is getting the ball to O’Neal in good position. One of his most effective moves comes when he gets the ball, passes it out, digs deeper into the low post and gets the ball back next to the hoop. Lately he isn’t getting that second pass. Even Rocket guard Steve Francis was surprised the Lakers didn’t go to O’Neal more often after Yao left with his fifth foul with 9:26 left in the fourth.

When O’Neal does makes his move off the first pass, he isn’t finishing as well as he has in previous seasons.

What else? Gary Payton isn’t shooting well, and he’s bothered when he doesn’t get extended playing time. When he does get more light, such as the 41 minutes he played Thursday, it means reduced minutes for backup Derek Fisher. That doesn’t make him happy. Of course, it doesn’t help that he isn’t making any shots. If you’ve paid attention at all the last few years, you know what to expect if Bryant continues to take more combined shots and free throws than O’Neal.

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Add it all up and it means four losses in six games.

Not very good at all.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Swoon

Lakers in last six games:

*--* Record 2-4 Avg. Pts. scored 99.0 Avg. Pts. given up 104.7 Avg. Pts. scored in victories 104.0 Avg. Pts. given up in losses 107.0 Avg. margin of victory 4.0 pts Avg margin of defeat 10.5 pts

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Forward Thinking

Over the same span of six games, inability to defend forwards has hurt the Lakers. The leading scorers of Laker opponents:

*--* Dec. 12 Dallas 110, Lakers 93 * Dirk Nowitzki (F) 27 points * Antoine Walker (F) 27 points Dec. 13 Portland 112, Lakers 108 * Rasheed Wallace (F) 28 points Dec. 19 Lakers 101, Denver 99 * Carmelo Anthony (F) 24 points Dec. 21 Lakers 107, Phoenix 101 * Stephon Marbury (G) 31 points Dec. 23 Golden St. 107, Lakers 98 * Cliff Robinson (F) 24 points Dec. 25 Houston 99, Lakers 87 * Steve Francis (G) 22 points

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.


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