Lakers must find balance after Kobe Bryant’s return

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SAN ANTONIO — Kobe Bryant was in a playful mood Wednesday night, telling reporters he didn’t miss them at all during his seven-game injury absence.

He also didn’t hesitate when asked whether he could play all 48 minutes Friday against San Antonio.

“If I have to,” he said.

Yep. He’s back.

It will have been two weeks since Bryant was sidelined because of a sore left shin. The Lakers weren’t exactly teetering over a cliff with arms pinwheeling during his absence, going 5-2, but now they have a couple of minor problems.

In no particular order, the Clippers continue to shadow them in the race for third place in the Western Conference and the Lakers need to reintegrate Bryant and his 23 shots a game.

Andrew Bynum’s shots jumped from 12.5 a game to 19.6 while Bryant was sidelined. Pau Gasol skipped from 13.6 to 18.3. Metta World Peace was a completely different player without Bryant, averaging 16.3 points the last seven games, more than double his season average.

And yet, World Peace was almost giddy about Bryant’s return.

“He makes us better,” World Peace said. “I can’t wait to get Kobe back. I just can’t wait.

“We’ll get him back in shape. I came here to play with Kobe. I know what type of player Kobe is and I wanted to win some rings. That’s why I came to L.A.”

Bryant said he hated being on the sidelines but spent a lot of time as an unofficial Lakers assistant coach the last two weeks.

“Now that I’m not out there, you have to do other things, you have to kind of experiment with your game,” he said. “They had a great deal of success at it, so their confidence is at a high level, which is great.”

Bryant must tightrope his way into the lineup, fueling that confidence by feeding teammates but also being an effective scorer.

“He’s such a gifted player when it comes to having a feel for the game and guys have played with him for such a long time, I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to be difficult in getting him back in the mix or in the flow,” Lakers Coach Mike Brown said.

Bryant leads the league in scoring (28.1 points a game) but is shooting only 43%, his lowest accuracy since his second season.

The Lakers (40-23) stunned the Spurs last week without him, 98-84, but were crushed by them Tuesday at Staples Center, 112-91, their largest margin of defeat this season.

Bynum had 30 rebounds last week against the Spurs and World Peace had 26 points, the most he’d ever scored with the Lakers, but San Antonio’s Tony Parker had 29 points and 13 assists in the rematch that featured an 18-0 Spurs run.

The Spurs (45-16) are in a playoff chase of their own, trying to finish ahead of Oklahoma City for the top spot in the West.

Friday will be nothing short of interesting with Bryant back. The Lakers’ playoff push begins with three games left in the regular season.