Can't Blame Bryant for It

Times Staff Writer

It was intriguing for a while, almost entertaining, to see how the Lakers would fare without Kobe Bryant.

As Lamar Odom streaked toward a triple-double and Brian Cook made his first eight shots, maybe, just maybe, there would be a victory Sunday against the Utah Jazz.

Then came reality, piggy-backing on the shoulders of a sloppy finish, and the result was a 98-94 loss to Utah at Staples Center.

There were plenty of areas to blame in the final minutes, with missed free throws, poor passes and blown layups, all symptoms of a team that can't yet consistently win the close ones, with or without the league's second-leading scorer.

When it was over, after Jazz forward Mehmet Okur had taken a long lead pass in the final seconds and waited under the basket before feeding Andrei Kirilenko for an alley-oop dunk, the Lakers had lost their fourth consecutive game and fallen to 15-15.

By then, the momentum that began with a 5-1 trip and was sustained with decent efforts in Orlando and Miami seemed to have officially escaped.

"One month ago we played Utah and we were 6-8," Coach Phil Jackson said. "We turned our season around that particular time and played a good three weeks. We've had one week here that we've played basketball poorly. It's ruined a really good month and a good spate of time that we've had. But all is not lost."

If winning and losing were determined by free-throw shooting, all might be lost.

The Lakers made only 15 of 25 free throws despite Jackson's end-of-practice declaration to the team Saturday that there would not be a loss because of such foibles.

But the Lakers were three for eight from the line in the fourth quarter, including two misses by Devean George in the final 3:12.

The Lakers, 18th in the league in free-throw shooting before the game, are running out of ways to improve in the category.

"You can get hypnotists to come in and work with guys, and you can get soothsayers, and maybe we should practice something else in voodoo or something," Jackson said. "Really, it's a matter of confidence and going out there and just settling in and doing the job that you have to do as a professional player."

Cook kept things close with 19 points and Odom had 18 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, but the Lakers fell to 6-11 without Bryant over the last two seasons.

There were late chances to beat a team that had played the previous night, but Odom missed a layup, Chris Mihm missed one too, and the Lakers never did take the lead in the second half.

The final blow came with the Lakers down, 94-92. Luke Walton's pass from the top of the three-point line to a cutting Cook was stolen. Keith McLeod was fouled, and, unlike many Lakers, made his free throws for a 96-92 lead with 22.2 seconds left.

"Whenever your best player's out, you want to play your best basketball," Odom said. "We did at times, and toward the end of the game we just couldn't will ourselves enough to make the right play."

Walton had 10 points while starting in place of Bryant, who will also sit out Tuesday's game in Utah.

Cook, who had been battling flu-like symptoms and a sinus infection for the better part of four days, didn't miss a shot until the third quarter, making eight of 10 overall.

"It lets you all know that we can play at this level," he said. "We love Kobe when he is out there, but we all can play. We don't buy into the whole, 'We don't help Kobe' and stuff like that."

The last four Laker losses have been by a total of 13 points.

"We're practicing on losing close right now, which is mentally very difficult for a basketball team," Jackson said. "They're in a game, they know they're in a game and now they're waiting for the next shoe to drop, the act that is going to create the fallacy and the failure."

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