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Lakers’ Coast Wasn’t Cleared

Times Staff Writer

Phil Jackson’s point was for them to maintain their bodies, to sharpen their minds, to get their games together and to be, you know, capable by the middle of April, when the NBA playoffs start, presumably with them.

The Lakers heard ... coast.

On Monday afternoon, on the floor of a dusty new arena here, the crowds having thinned somewhat since February’s All-Star game, Jackson boosted himself into a sitting position on the scorer’s table.

Mostly free, or so it would seem, from the kidney stone that had weakened him for weeks, Jackson has been a breezier personality recently, even with the playoffs approaching and his team’s personality unchanged.

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Regardless of where it ends -- or, more critically, how it ends -- no one will recall this season, three championships in, as anything more than an ungainly effort. And now, still entrenched in the second-to-last Western Conference playoff spot with three weeks of the regular season remaining, the Lakers are gearing for ... well, if Jackson only knew.

It gets complicated, from Kobe Bryant’s sore knee -- those close to the team say Jackson has asked Bryant if he shouldn’t rest for a game or two or three, and Bryant has declined -- to recurring defensive breakdowns.

“I think we’re trying to make it through the season in the best possible shape we can,” Jackson said, “with the least possible amount of effort or extenuating circumstances that could possibly happen to us. When they take my word, for example, that the most important thing for us to get through the season is good health, they’re taking it very literally.”

He laughed. An important long weekend for conference standings and psychological twists concluded with two huge deficits, two scrappy little comebacks, two losses down the stretch.

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The outcome: Sacramento 107, Lakers 99, followed three days later by San Antonio 98, Lakers 89.

“I can’t be super critical about it,” Jackson said. “But the accumulation of mistakes you make as a basketball team, it’s like the law of karma ... you can’t atone for the weight that goes behind them. I don’t know if we can get back to playing the kind of defense and offense that sits in our craw and doesn’t make us full of indigestion when we watch this kind of tape, like the game [Sunday]. We really have a lot of work to do to be a good playoff basketball team.”

So, they have three weeks to find their defensive souls and their offensive mechanics, in time to play perhaps the Kings or the Spurs in the first round.

“I think we can,” Jackson said. “I think it’s the level of activity more than anything else. It’s still activity. Even down the stretch [against San Antonio] with us playing as poorly as we did, a couple loose balls and rebounds we gather in, change the context of that game entirely. Those are the things we have to understand as a basketball team, where we have to play, and find that happy medium.

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“It’s not unusual for a basketball team that’s veteran and [played] a lot of years on the floor together to feel the confidence of, ‘We can pull it together at some point in the playoffs.’ But we’ve got to have more assurances of that right now.”

A healthier Bryant likely would, for Jackson, be soothing enough, as Shaquille O’Neal gains on his early- and midseason injuries.

Instead, Bryant, leaning heavily on his left leg, has lost the touch for his jump shot and, lately, has failed to finish drives to the basket with his usual authority. He is 27 for 71 from the field in the last three games, and admitted Monday his right knee remains a bother.

“Certain parts of the game I can’t really turn it up,” he said.

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He was hounded in Sacramento by Doug Christie and in San Antonio by Bruce Bowen. But Bryant missed open jumpers and three layups against the Spurs, who pulled away in the end.

“He’s hurting,” Jackson said. “He’s cushioning his way through. Probably most dramatically of any of our players, Kobe’s got to nurse his way through these games right now.”

Thirteen games remain, five in the next seven days. The Lakers play tonight against the Hawks and Wednesday night in Houston. The back-to-backs keep coming, faster than the playoff reminders even, and the priorities seemingly change by the quarter.

They say they believe. They say they believe nothing has changed.

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“Why shouldn’t we?” Brian Shaw asked.


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