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They may be OK, after all

ON THE NBA

We interrupt the wailing and gnashing of teeth by Lakers fans, distraught at the team’s nose dive, to bring you this message:

THE RACE IS BACK ON!

Just when it looked like the Lakers were locked into an inglorious No. 2 finish as their fans put on sackcloth and ashes, guess which young Eastern power lost two in a row and which local team now finds itself within one game?

Yes, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had won 13 in a row, looking like they wouldn’t lose again this season, until they lost two in two days, and the Lakers, who drew to within a game Friday night by defeating the Houston Rockets, 93-81.

This came in the nick of time, with Lakers fans about to run wild in the streets as the team plummeted, resulting in a raft of suggestions about getting new guards, a coach, etc.

Unfortunately, they don’t let me do those Q&A; columns, so I could assure everyone that everything’s cool.

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Nevertheless, I can dream.

Q: Who would you vote for “least improved” Laker this 2008-09 season, Sasha Vujacic or Jordan Farmar?

A: Sun Yue. Why pin this on two reserve guards when we can put it on a rookie who just showed up from China and is now with the D-Fenders?

Q: What’s your opinion on how Phil Jackson calls time out?

A: Calls time out? They can pull someone out of the stands to call time out every time the other team scores four in a row. Better yet, they can let you do it! There’s actually more to coaching than calling time out and substituting, which laymen can follow, as opposed to designing schemes, deciding whether to go over, under, switch, trap or hedge the one-four (point guard-power forward) pick and roll and other things too abstruse to worry your pretty little head about.

Q: It’s time for Derek Fisher to hang up his sneakers. He just can’t guard anybody. And he’s flopping and isn’t fooling the refs anymore.

A: No stats are available this season but the last three, Fish finished No. 8, No. 13 and No. 1 in taking charges. Lakers point guards were pilloried for allowing penetration when it was all on pick-and-rolls with Shaquille O’Neal cemented in the lane. Now they’re supposed to funnel opponents to the sideline and turn them over to other guys . . . some of whom are there and some of whom aren’t. What, you think Pau Gasol is some sort of ace defender and Fisher is shot?

As for your suggestions to get D.J. Augustin, Al Jefferson, et al, that’s a good idea.

Now, we have to cover the subject of the trading deadline.

In any case, the old tension returned Friday night with the Cavaliers once more within sight and another rugged West foe in town.

Of course, in their last meeting, Houston’s Ron Artest started jabbering at Kobe Bryant, who became incensed and torched him like a fire-breathing dragon with a match stick.

A quick study, Artest said he probably won’t ever do that again.

“I called him the worst player in the world,” Artest said before Friday’s game. “That’s what I told him. I told him he was the worst player I’d seen in my life.

“He had a bunch of great answers. He was ready. It was fun, just after the game, looking at all the comments, looking at YouTube -- they got a bunch of stuff.

“It’s easy to talk to someone who’s going to back down to you. It’s easy for a big guy to pick on a smaller guy. Some people might not talk to the guy who actually might kill them. So I like to talk to the guy who’s going to kill me.”

Friday night, Artest buttoned it up, so Bryant settled for 20 points, eight of them in the fourth quarter.

As formidable as the Rockets are, they struggle in close games without a superstar who can get his own shots, as Tracy McGrady once did, intermittently.

The Lakers have Bryant, the Closer.

“I’ve seen that enough,” said Houston Coach Rick Adelman, whose Sacramento teams Bryant used to flambe, too. “I don’t have to see it one more time, so he should have confidence that I know that he’s that good.”

Not that anything is simple these days.

After talking for months about his concern about the toll the Olympics took on Bryant and Gasol, Jackson is still playing them heavy minutes, with both going 38 Friday night.

Bryant thrives on work. However, when someone mentioned how much Gasol was playing after he went 43 minutes in Milwaukee, Bryant replied, “You think?”

Depends on whom you ask.

“Pau’s a little bit -- well, I don’t want to call him a whiner, but he’s a little bit of a guy who might get over the edge on that,” said the inimitable Jackson. “But he knows he has to step it up and he’s done a terrific job of playing the kind of minutes that are really a compliment to him, to be able to take care of his body and compete at this level.”

Bryant actually did get a rest Friday night, sitting out the last minute.

See? It’s always darkest before the dawn. --

mark.heisler@latimes.com


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