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Are Lakers losing Kobe Bryant’s waiting game?

Sasha Vujacic grabbed. Adam Morrison screamed.

Vujacic grabbed harder, playing defense with handfuls of jersey. Morrison screamed louder, warning Vujacic to keep his hands to himself.

Vujacic shrugged. Morrison surged. The team converged. The men were separated.

During this final scrimmage of a Friday afternoon practice at EnergySolutions Arena, some Lakers were wincing.

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Sitting on the baseline, Kobe Bryant was smiling.

“I wasn’t even going to move,” he said later. “A lot of meowing going on out there. The claws coming out. A good thing.”

One day after using up one of their nine lives in an awful Game 3 defeat to the outmanned Utah Jazz here, the Lakers were a mostly ornery bunch, working late and sweating buckets, Phil Jackson even ordering Derek Fisher to stop shooting and get on the bus.

Sitting on that baseline, Kobe Bryant kept smiling.

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“These are the playoffs, you don’t win every game,” he said. “You lose sometimes. It happens.”

More than their star, more than their leader, Bryant is the Lakers’ face. During Friday’s practice, despite the curses being tossed from three-point line to paint, that face was one of patience and restraint.

Drives me crazy. Suits him fine.

Bryant agreed that for probably the first time in his career, he has gone three postseason games without putting his stamp on any of them.

But, no, he’s not ready to change anything yet.

“I’m going to stick to the script,” he said. “I’m going to get the guys involved early, work it inside, get them going . . . and if that doesn’t work, then go to me.”

But, c’mon, it took nine minutes for him to score in Game 1, it required eight minutes for him to score in Game 2, and it was nearly halftime before he scored in Game 3.

The first two games, the Lakers survived. The third game, they imploded, with Bryant’s fingerprints all over the wreckage. When he finally started looking for the basket, he couldn’t find it, and the Lakers were lost.

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Shouldn’t he start doing a little more, a little earlier?

“Yeah, I will probably have to look for my shot a little earlier, maybe I’ve been waiting too long,” he said, pausing. “But, still, I know what my job is.”

He says his job is not to score 50 points in a losing playoff game as he did against Phoenix a couple of years ago.

His job is to lead this team to a championship.

With that smile, Kobe Bryant is asking us to trust him on this one.

“I’ve got a different role here now,” he said. “I can’t just go out there and shoot like crazy.”

Numerous people have mentioned that Michael Jordan would never allow the Chicago Bulls to lose a game like Thursday night’s -- his team would never blow a 13-point third-quarter lead while Jordan made only five of 24 shots.

Bryant shook his head.

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“One big difference,” he said. “Michael had Scottie Pippen. He had someone who could distribute the ball and keep everyone else involved.”

Bryant momentarily sighed.

“Michael could come out and shoot the ball 40 times a game,” Bryant said. “I can’t do that.”

Again, he smiled.

“Having someone like Pippen would be a big luxury for me, because scoring is what I do best, but it’s OK,” he said. “It’s a challenge, and I welcome the challenge.”

He’s right. If the Lakers win the championship, it will be Bryant’s finest NBA moment, because he will not have shot his team there, he will have led his team there.

Part of this leadership is understanding his teammates, and Bryant knows what happens if he comes out firing.

“I’ve done that, but then the rest of the team sits back and watches, and doesn’t get into a rhythm, and it doesn’t do us any good,” he said. “Sometimes it’s harder this way, but I’ve got to give them their opportunities first.”

It is, truly, harder this way.

It is hard to know that the Lakers have the game’s greatest scorer, yet are suffering through 39-point halves because he’s spending most of his time passing.

It’s hard to believe that, at age 30, with all the basketball he has played in the last 18 months, Bryant can still always just turn it on when necessary.

On Thursday, he couldn’t. On Friday, he assured us that he would. Lamar Odom says we are fools if we don’t listen.

“Of course Kobe will adjust,” he said, shaking his head. “He’s the best offensive player in the league, one of the best ever. He will not have a problem getting off.”

Having addressed the issue of Michael Jordan, I asked Bryant about the other giant shadow over his shoulder, guy by the name of LeBron James.

Think the Cleveland Cavaliers star is scouting him these days?

“Of course he’s watching, I know LeBron, he’s watching everything I do, that’s just his personality,” Bryant said with a grin.

And, so, is Bryant studying James?

The smile ended.

“No,” he said with a laser stare. “I could care less.”

There. That’s the Bryant we are used to seeing and hearing and feeling.

His leadership has been plentiful. A little more laser would be nice.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com


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