The Lakers are going to assume the last few weeks will have no bearing on what happens from here. Publicly, they’ll stick to that.
But in some arenas on some nights, such as American Airlines Center on Thursday, when Brian Cook breaks his finger in a 106-87 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, when a tied score in the third quarter becomes a rout, well, Gary Payton can’t help but observe, “It just goes from worse to worse.”
Cook, the Laker rookie who had his first career start Wednesday night, officially joined the Laker infirm when a deflected ball struck the tip of his right pinkie. X-rays confirmed what Cook knew immediately to be true, so just as the Lakers appeared to be gaining on their talent and depth issues -- Phil Jackson expects Horace Grant on Saturday and has hopes for Kobe Bryant as well -- another man fell.
Jackson said Cook could require surgery, his second already as a Laker. The first was on the ring finger of his left hand.
“Bad luck,” Cook called it.
The only kind they’ve got going, all of a sudden.
Meanwhile, as they step over bodies in the trainer’s room, the Lakers lost their ninth consecutive road game. Overall, they lost their third consecutive game, their fourth in five, and their eighth in 12.
On Thursday it was Michael Finley (31 points), Antawn Jamison (26) and Antoine Walker (23) who stood where many have recently, open on the perimeter, streaking to the basket, wherever the points go. Devean George perked up some, scoring a season-high 24 points for the Lakers after a dreadful week. But against the breakneck Mavericks, scoring would not be the issue, defense was.
The score was tied, 65-65, in the third quarter, the Lakers having come back from 17 points down. And then the Mavericks led, 89-69, 7 1/2 minutes later. And that was the game, the Mavericks that much better when pushed.
Most of the Lakers would choose the perspective of their coach.
Jackson calls more timeouts than ever, and sometimes he shouts angrily. Other than that, his sudden bent toward the three-piece suit aptly represents his unruffled exterior. He said there would be no cumulative damage done by these losses, not in April or May. Kids win, kids lose, kids move on to the next town.
“I don’t think so, because usually what happens, when you lose a lead it stays lost,” Jackson said.
The Lakers came back. Briefly. Insignificantly. But Jackson drew some hope from it.
“I think some of our veterans feel frustrated by it,” Jackson said. “These younger kids, though, they’re getting a chance and they’re happy for the opportunity.”
Payton, who 2 1/2 weeks ago pointed out that he hadn’t signed up for this at all, has since seen Bryant injure his shoulder, and the losses mount. Pretty much, he has hung in there, praised the young Lakers, and patted their butts when they needed it.
He shook his head Thursday night and pushed his dinner around his plate and would not totally buy the cavalry’s-coming talk.
“We don’t know if wins are going to come,” he said. “That’s not guaranteed. I mean, everybody’s got to come back. We still got to get a rhythm together.... It’s going to be a couple games to get a rhythm.”
Laker games, particularly on the road, are hardly even about the Lakers anymore. Here, in the waning moments of the game, 100 points meant something to the people in the stands.
“Cha -- loo -- pa!” they chanted. And Finley made a turnaround jumper, and everybody ate for free.
They were 10-point underdogs in Memphis, where one of the local columnists called them not the Lakers but “the Puddlers,” to 13-point underdogs in Dallas, where a columnist referred to them as the “Los Angeles Achers.”
Everybody’s getting the shots in now.
Karl Malone went down at 20-5 and the Lakers, having lost Shaquille O’Neal and then Bryant in the following weeks, are 5-10 since.
So, the Lakers returned to the site of their last road win, which also happened to be their most impressive win of a season they believed would be filled with them. If it seems like a long time ago, it was Dec. 4, seven weeks ago. Payton took pretend pictures of O’Neal after a dunk, for the poster. Malone picked off Steve Nash with his elbow. A night after winning in San Antonio, the Lakers won by 11 and, for all the drama after the first quarter, it might have been 31.
“Honestly,” Derek Fisher said as he walked out, “I’m not sure how this will end up affecting us in the long run. Right now, we just gotta chalk it up and take it to the next arena.”