Lakers’ challenge for Game 4: How low can they go?

The Lakers knew two things when they arrived at Friday’s practice — there would definitely be a Game 5 against Oklahoma City and there would also be a Game 6 if they don’t start pounding the ball down low with greater success.

They assembled 12 hours after realizing they weren’t going to sweep Oklahoma City, experiencing an intriguing day in many ways, Phil Jackson answering back to David Stern’s harsh rebuke of coaches who criticize referees, and the Lakers’ two All-Stars switching personalities — Kobe Bryant the ebullient one while Pau Gasol was somber and tight-lipped.

Their first-round series against the Thunder continues Saturday night with Game 4, but not without another push to get the ball to Gasol and Andrew Bynum, a strategy discarded in Game 3 amid a stunning 31 three-point attempts. Not surprisingly, the Lakers lost, 101-96, and saw their series lead chopped to 2-1.

Gasol wasn’t amused, even after sleeping on it.

He is averaging 20.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and shooting 55% this series but had only two shots in the fourth quarter Thursday.

“They’re weaker inside,” he said of the undersized Thunder. “They have a disadvantage and they try to protect it by fronting, by being active, by sending other guys from behind.

“We can’t fall into the mistake of settling too much because that’s what they want you to do. Those long shots lead to long rebounds, long rebounds lead to run-outs, and that’s where they’re strong — running and finishing on the break. We’re a much bigger team, slower team, older team . . . you have to understand that and you have to play accordingly to that.”

Gasol spoke to reporters with his arms crossed and an irritated look, a rare occurrence for the always-pleasant 7-footer. He didn’t even play along with a lighter story that the hotel where the Lakers were staying was allegedly haunted.

Did he believe it to be true?


Had he heard stories of it being haunted?


And he still wasn’t buying it?


Bryant, on the other hand, had some fun with it.

“I had a good conversation with Elvis last night,” he said, seemingly fine after missing 19 of 29 shots in Game 3, including eight of 10 in the fourth quarter.

The brooding demeanor he assumed in recent days was replaced Friday by a series of smiles and insightful answers.

On Oklahoma City’s 53-39 edge in Game 3 rebounds: “All five of their guys crash the boards. All of them, from the point guard on up.”

On the Thunder’s defense: “Fronting [the post] and doing all of this stuff is kind of mucking our offense up. We get so late into the shot clock that we wind up taking bailout shots. We’ve got to figure out a way to free up our post players and get them the ball in position where they can be effective.”

The Lakers are also hoping for rapid improvement from Lamar Odom (6.3 points a game this series) and fewer long-distance heaves from Ron Artest, who is a miserable three for 19 (15.8%) from three-point range.

“We’re trying to encourage him to make plays and not just take shots,” Jackson said. “We’ll see if he can connect a little bit with that idea in the fourth game here.”

Jackson, who has been fined twice this month, also reacted to the NBA commissioner’s rigid stance on coaches’ conduct, saying referees weren’t immune to human nature — they hear crowds and react accordingly to them.

“It’s about the energy that’s in the building. Let’s face it,” he said. “There’s 20,000 people in here [for games]. It’s not an objective thing. We try to make it objective, but it’s subjective. People definitely lean a certain way. I think statistically you could prove that. But we try to do the best we can do and I think the referees do a good job as for what they’ve got.”