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It’s Not Stage Bryant Wants

Kobe Bryant loves challenges, so here’s mine: Make the playoffs, or else he should be the one to go to Secaucus, N.J.

“Secaucus?” Bryant said. “Where’s that?”

It’s the home of the NBA Entertainment studios. It’s the site of the draft lottery.

He leaned back and laughed.

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“I hadn’t even thought about that,” he said.

Here are some more things to ponder: Magic Johnson’s Laker teams never missed the playoffs. Neither did Elgin Baylor’s nor Jerry West’s.

Bryant wanted responsibility for the franchise, he got it and he should accept everything that comes with it. Every year a representative from each team in the lottery sits on a stage in Secaucus and waits to learn his team’s draft position. Bryant is the face of these laKers, so he should show his at the lottery, if necessary.

“I can’t commit to that,” Bryant said.

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He did say he’d consider it. Perhaps he can contemplate it while the Lakers travel 6,500 miles over the next nine days. If the Lakers (30-29) can’t maintain at least a .500 record by the time they finish this six-game trip that begins tonight in Dallas they can forget the playoffs.

Avoiding Secaucus (called the “Jewel of New Jersey’s Meadowlands” on www.secaucus.org and dubbed “Wackaucus” by a friend of mine at NBA Entertainment) ought to add to the motivation.

Even when this daunting itinerary -- highlighted by a rematch with Shaquille O’Neal in Miami on March 17 -- is finished, the Lakers still have trips to San Antonio, Memphis, Phoenix and Seattle in store. This for a team that’s 9-17 on the road.

It’s crunch time. That’s usually when Bryant is at his best.

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You can tell he senses the urgency, feels that all eyes are on him. He has elevated his play in the last three games, scoring 40, 37 and 41 points while shooting 51% from the field and making 43 of 45 free throws.

But it isn’t always enough. Coach Frank Hamblen says that whenever Bryant starts to do his thing, the other players stand and watch instead of getting involved.

“Kobe’s so good, sometimes you get caught up,” Lamar Odom said. “He’s so aggressive, sometimes you wait for him.”

And at times it seems as if they’re all waiting for someone else to play defense.

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The Clippers put up 110 points in a victory over the Lakers Tuesday night, dropping them a half game behind Denver and out of the final Western Conference playoff spot.

“Now we’ve got to go on the road, where I’m sure everybody’s counting us out, and seemingly do the impossible,” Bryant said afterward.

It shouldn’t be impossible to get a victory at expansion Charlotte on Saturday, or against the struggling Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday. If they somehow can pick up a third win along the way, they can call it a successful trip.

Yes, 3-3 would qualify as a success. There are new standards in Lakerland. As it is now, just squeaking into the playoffs would be considered progress, and grant Bryant a small measure of redemption.

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They miss the Big Fella. Vlade Divac’s back and Brian Grant’s knees were worse than expected. Chris Mihm is a good help defender and can deliver when the team makes a point of getting him the ball, but can we please stop citing the useless stat that the Lakers are 12-3 when he plays more than 30 minutes? Your choice of socks on game day has more relevance. The bulk of those wins are against Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, Milwaukee, Orlando, New Orleans, Portland and Utah.

What matters is the Lakers are 5-10 against the All-Star big men (O’Neal, Ben Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Amare Stoudemire and Zydrunas Ilgauskas).

Using Odom at point guard has made him more productive, but it’s coming at the expense of Caron Butler, who thrived more under the old offense when he cut while Bryant drove to the basket.

Meanwhile, the triangle offense has become Bryant’s greatest ally.

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Since Bryant came back from his ankle injury and Hamblen utilized Phil Jackson’s preferred offense more and more, Bryant has averaged 31.2 points and shot 47% (compared to 27.5 and 41% shooting before).

“The system that we’re running now really prohibits defenses to sit on me and key on me,” Bryant said. “I’m not in isolation situations. If I am, it’s off of movement, so we’re kind of shifting the defense. And because of that, I’ve been able to get a lot of good looks.”

He’ll have to get good looks and knock them down to get the Lakers to the playoffs. With Bryant playing at this level, I like their chances of getting to the playoffs better than their shot at the No. 1 pick if they fall into the lottery. Based on their current record, the Lakers would have around the 12th to 14th worst record in league, and no team has jumped more than 10 spaces above its final-standings finish to grab the No. 1 pick since the current system was implemented in 1994.

For Laker fans unfamiliar with the lottery process (it has been 11 years since they went), each team is assigned a sequence of numbers; the worse the record, the more numbers a team has. Fourteen numbered ping-pong balls are drawn to determine the sequence.

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Usually the teams send a member of the front office to sit on stage. The Clippers send General Manager Elgin Baylor. (At least, I think that’s Baylor. Given how little emotion he shows, and Donald Sterling’s penchant for saving bucks, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Clippers skip the airfare and just mail a life-sized poster).

But other players have gone in the past, including Ray Allen, Chris Bosh and even Milt Palacio (he had made a lucky, game-winning shot for the Boston Celtics that season).

Steve Francis, then with the Houston Rockets, was in New Jersey in 2002 when the Rockets (the fifth-worst team) bested 9-1 odds and landed the No. 1 pick they used for Yao.

There isn’t a franchise player such as Yao in the pool this year. If there’s going to be any star power associated with this draft, it would have to come from Bryant at the lottery. That’s not the place to be, even for a man who loves center stage.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.


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