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Bryant is being pushed to brink

It was the darkest moment of a quarter blackened with shame.

With 4:32 left in the second quarter Tuesday, Kobe Bryant drove through three Phoenix Suns before being fouled in front of the basket.

It was the kind of tough play the Lakers had been avoiding. It was the sort of effort the Lakers had been missing.

Yet as Bryant walked to the foul line, he walked alone.

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No teammate slapped his hand. No teammate patted his back. No teammate even behaved remotely like a teammate.

Not only didn’t the Lakers seem to care about the Phoenix Suns, they didn’t seem to care about each other.

And after their awful 126-98 loss to the Suns in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs, falling behind two games to none with no hope in sight, you have to wonder.

With the Lakers seemingly destined to be sent home without a playoff series win for the third consecutive year since the departure of Superman, where does this leave Wonder Boy?

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After three years of wondering what the Lakers are going to do with Kobe Bryant, maybe everyone has been wondering the wrong thing.

What is Kobe Bryant going to do with the Lakers?

With the window closing quickly on his chance to win a championship without Shaquille O’Neal, the prematurely aging Bryant must surely ponder jumping out before he spends the rest of his career with his nose pressed longingly to the glass.

How much longer can Bryant stand to be a Laker?

The horrific second quarter Tuesday at the US Airways Center was the perfect example of how the only thing more amazing than his ability is his patience.

How much more can Bryant take?

In the second quarter in Game 1, he was subtly poked by Coach Phil Jackson for taking eight shots and scoring 15 points and exhausting himself too soon.

“That’s what we would have liked to see at the end of the game,” Jackson said.

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So in the second quarter Tuesday, what did Bryant do? He took one shot. He had two assists. He scored four points. And what happened?

The Lakers were outscored, 37-22, it cost them the game, and Bryant was left with 15 meaningless points, a needlessly sprained ankle and a huge scowl.

“They played harder than we did,” he said, later adding, “It’s not like we have the best talent in the league, so we really have to pride ourselves on playing hard all the time. All the time.”

Right about now, those who believe that Bryant engineered the trade of O’Neal are clucking about making beds and sleeping in them.

But first, although Bryant might have wanted the deal, it was made by Jerry Buss.

And, second, no superstar should be forced to sleep in a bed this disheveled.

At one point in the second quarter, the Lakers fielded a team of Shammond Williams, Sasha Vujacic, Maurice Evans, Brian Cook and Lamar Odom.

Although Bryant missed his only shot of the quarter, the other Lakers were six for 20.

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And nobody played defense.

For the Suns, it was layup after dunk. It was as if the Suns were running sprints and the Lakers were running for the bus.

Five on four, it was.

Midway through the quarter, the Suns had two offensive rebounds on each of two consecutive possessions, scoring each time.

Moments later, Steve Nash connected on an ally-oop dunk pass to Shawn Marion from midcourt.

Five on three, it was.

By the end of the quarter, the Suns held a 68-47 halftime lead and the game was history.

By the end of the night, the Lakers’ chances of even winning one game in this series approached history after Bryant rolled his ankle while playing in yet another no-win situation.

What exactly was he doing in the game with 7:59 remaining and the Lakers trailing, 107-79?

Said Bryant: “Phil told me to go in and play, so I went in and played.”

Said Jackson: “It wasn’t that late ... they still had their starters in .... I thought Kobe was out of sync and I wanted him to get in sync.”

So when is the Lakers’ talent level going to get in sync with Bryant? Or will it ever?

Earlier this week, when asked about that closing window on his career, Bryant said, “We definitely have to get to that elite level. And we have to get to that level, like, now.”

Never before has he sounded so impatient. And he was only getting started.

“It makes me frustrated,” he said. “When I’m not shooting well, we struggle. And when I’m shooting, I’m doing it against three guys, and I can’t get to the basket, and I have to pull up and shoot jump shots, and that takes it toll.”

Unless the Lakers are able to get Bryant some legitimate and consistent help, that is the scenario he faces in each of his playoff games in the rest of his career as a Laker.

Suddenly, this week, for perhaps the first time, those prospects didn’t seem so publicly appealing.

Bryant shook his head.

“I’ve won before,” he said. “I want to win again.”

Not this year. And, at this rate, maybe not in his Lakers lifetime.

One can only wonder how much longer Kobe Bryant wants that lifetime to last.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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