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Next Game Plan May Not Include Kobe

Kobe or not Kobe?

That’s the question, not whether Kobe Bryant “tanked” a game the Lakers trailed by 15 points at halftime ... and by 21 when he took his first shot in the third quarter after the Suns scored on six of their first seven possessions.

Of course, Bryant has been known to stop shooting because he wants to make a point. OK, I threw them the ball, you see what they did with it.

On the other hand, it’s hardly tanking if he scores 23 points in the first half and pulls back at the direction of his coach, as Phil Jackson insisted again last week.

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“Kobe went out with the game plan in mind,” Jackson wrote in an e-mail. “Get the ball inside! Kwame [Brown] couldn’t get anything to fall for him.... L.O. [Lamar Odom] the same. [Steve] Nash had banged his knee the first half and we went at him but Smush [Parker] couldn’t score.

“Now we’re 20 down and I put in [Brian] Cook to get the screen-roll game going and they doubled Kobe and left Cook open ...

“He [Bryant] finally tried to bust through the defense and got called for a charge and committed a turnover. So there you go. We’re down by 25 points and things have slipped away.”

Unfortunately for all concerned, whether or not Bryant was trying to make the point, it’s not only valid but inescapable.

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The Lakers need a lot of help, which they’re not likely to get soon whether or not they keep to their 2008 salary cap strategy, which is already Plan B after 2007 free agents Yao Ming and Amare Stoudemire signed extensions.

The question isn’t whether they can trust Bryant, who’s assuredly as foibled as he is great, but whether they can keep him.

If you think the last two seasons were rough, come back after he leaves to see what Staples Center looks like with 5,000 empty seats. All of the Lakers’ hopes depend on Bryant’s riding along for two more seasons, but for Kobe, that’s a long time.

At midseason he was asked whether he could last until 2008 if that was what it took. His answer was Basic Kobe: It wouldn’t.

“We’re not that far away, one piece, two pieces maybe,” he said. “The vision that we have for the team may be a little different than the direction other people see us going in.”

The events of Game 7 suggest how devastated he was after they took that 3-1 lead, which seemed to open a path to the Western Conference finals without leaving home if they could beat the Clippers, only to have it taken away.

Bryant, who had always been gracious in defeat, didn’t congratulate any Suns. His teammates slinked off too, reportedly at his direction.

Bryant being the lightning rod of our time, the usual firestorm ensued. Charles Barkley ripped him as “selfish” and later said Bryant sent him 20 text messages in protest. The Times’ T.J. Simers wrote that Bryant “tanked,” adding, “Amazingly, the media in L.A. gave Bryant nothing but a free ride.”

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I was part of the L.A. media, not that I’m complaining, having zinged enough writers in my time. We’re fair game as much as Frank McCourt, Devean George or the Grocery Store Bagger, whoever that is.

Bryant’s fade was curious, and he might have been angrier than he would acknowledge, but, even assuming it was more out of pique than duty, it didn’t compare to the most famous disappearances.

The 76ers’ Wilt Chamberlain took two shots in the second half of Philadelphia’s 100-96 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 1968 Eastern finals, resulting in community-wide outrage and Wilt’s demand to be traded that sent him to the Lakers.

Yes, Michael Jordan did it too, in Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern finals, when the Bulls were tied, 2-2, with the Bad Boy Pistons, who dogged him according to their “Jordan Rules.”

When Jordan drove, it was, in the words of the great Lester Hayes, like running a gantlet of pit bulls wearing pork chop underwear, prompting Bulls Coach Doug Collins to suggest Mike go to teammates to throw the Bad Boys off the trail.

Jordan took eight shots in 46 minutes in a 94-85 loss. The Pistons then closed them out in Game 6.

So went Season 2 of the post-Shaquille O’Neal era. Well, live and learn.

Bryant didn’t break it up single-handedly, but he and Shaq deserve equal credit. The easiest thing to predict was that everyone would be sorry one day, starting with Shaq and Kobe, and if that day isn’t here, it’s near.

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This season’s humbler Lakers weren’t even expected to make the playoffs. If Jackson had known Cook would start more games at power forward than Brown, and Odom wouldn’t even average 15 points while taking a career-low 11.6 shots a game, he might have fled over the same hill Rudy Tomjanovich did.

With Odom coming late (before disappearing in Game 7) and Brown developing (everything’s relative), they have a legitimate hope of getting better, but so do several teams (Utah and Houston) that finished below them.

The Lakers figure to have some version of this season next season, so what happens if they’re out after one round or earlier?

There’s always more going on around Bryant than he’ll acknowledge. Even while regaining his place in the league and becoming a better teammate, behind the scenes he was prickly and as high-maintenance as the fabled princess who felt the pea under 20 mattresses.

The jersey-number change was only the latest bubble to surface. He bristled when asked about it, and when he finally deigned to comment, said he just “felt like it.” Meanwhile, ESPN’s Darren Rovell quoted an industry source who said Bryant didn’t like his old sneaker company, Adidas, reissuing his KB8 shoe under the name “Crazy 8.”

The last thing Bryant needed was something else suggesting his imperiousness. Someone might have told him that, if he had anyone who told him anything he didn’t want to hear.

Faces and Figures

Fall down every game, get back up, so far: Miami kamikaze Dwyane Wade, who had his bruised hip shot up so he could rescue his teammates in the pivotal Game 5 against the Bulls, did it again in the pivotal Game 3 in New Jersey, leaving in the third quarter after taking an elbow in the face as the Nets went ahead by eight points, returning to score 15 points in the fourth quarter as the Heat regained home-court advantage. “He’s a very, very unique player and he makes it look real easy, and I know how hard it has to be,” Coach Pat Riley said. “He’s just a blessing for us and this franchise.” ... Dallas Coach Avery Johnson went smaller and more athletic, starting Devin Harris against the Spurs, known fondly in San Antonio as “our AARPers.” For the Spurs, the good and bad news is that Tim Duncan is now their healthiest star with Tony Parker gimpy and Manu Ginobili (or as he’s known, “El Contusion”) banged up as usual.

Boston’s Paul Pierce, who fenced with Coach Doc Rivers when he arrived last season, is now so pro-Doc, Rivers decided to stay and the Celtics decided to keep him. “We have a lot of work to do defensively, but I certainly don’t blame our porous defense on Doc Rivers,” General Manager Danny Ainge said. “Personnel is one reason for it, and then just youth and change. Doc is still trying to figure out some things defensively for our personnel, and it’ll help him a lot to have the summer and have a training camp with these guys. So I think in a difficult year he did a marvelous job.” ... Pacer GM Larry Bird, who considered backing up the truck, is bringing back Coach Rick Carlisle and Jermaine O’Neal, conceding his coach “probably did lose the team” and saying of his star, “Would I go to Jermaine and say ‘I’m 100% sure you’re not going to get traded?’ I can’t do that, but he’s our guy and we’re going to build around him.” ... Gonzo: Kings Coach Rick Adelman, despite averaging 54 wins the last six seasons, when GM Geoff Petrie could no longer hold off owners Joe and Gavin Maloof, who tried to hire Jackson last spring; and Denver GM Kiki Vandeweghe, who rebuilt the franchise but lost influence to George Karl, who finished last season 32-8 before the wheels came off this season.


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