The last-place team in the Western Conference almost beat the first-place team Wednesday, almost the type of thing Mitch Kupchak alluded to three hours earlier.
No one can call the Lakers’ general manager prophetic, but he hinted at the NBA’s unpredictability before tipoff of the Lakers’ 99-93 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
As he walked to his seat at Staples Center, he was asked whether the Lakers could still make the playoffs.
“You know, anything can happen,” Kupchak told The Times. “We’re going to try to win every game. Certainly, we’ve dug a hole for ourselves and it’s going to take a while to climb out. The West, I believe, has 10 teams over .500 right now. But stuff happens.”
He stopped well short of saying the Lakers would advance beyond April 15, a wise move considering their 3-12 start (1-7 at home). Yet he seemed patient with a team trying to figure out how to handle a waterfall of injuries and a 36-year-old superstar with a lot of points and also a lot of missed shots.
“Our roster is way different than it was the first day of training camp,” Kupchak said. “For our coach and our players, including Kobe [Bryant], it’s a process. Clearly, some guys are going to shoot more in some games and some games they’re not going to shoot as much. As evidenced by the last three or four games, some games Kobe’s more aggressive offensively and some games he isn’t.”
Bryant was relatively passive in the first half against Memphis as the Lakers took a 51-46 lead. He had eight points at the time, taking only four shots, and was surrounded by balance against the team that shellacked the Clippers a few days earlier.
The Lakers were undone by an unbelievably poor finish, missing 10 of 11 shots in the last six minutes and unable to overcome an 89-87 deficit at the start of their slump.
Bryant finished with 22 points on five-for-15 shooting. He was one for five in the fourth quarter Jeremy Lin had 14 points and Nick Young had 13, the duo combining for only eight-for-23 shooting.
“It’s either all or nothing,” Bryant said, adding “it takes a conscious effort” for him to put aside his frustration over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Bryant would disagree vehemently, but losses aren’t that bad for the Lakers at this point.
If they finish with a top-five pick, they keep it instead of delivering it to Phoenix for the Steve Nash trade. There’s an excellent chance it will happen with Nash, Julius Randle and Xavier Henry out for the season.
“We’ve had our share of seasons where we didn’t get any [injuries],” Kupchak said. “It all evens out. We have 30, 40, 50 games from now to look and see where we are.”
Kupchak and Coach Byron Scott continue to evaluate the Lakers’ performance, most recently during lunch Tuesday at the Lakers’ training facility. Neither Kupchak nor Scott provided details, but it wasn’t believed to be as important as interpreted through Scott’s comments to reporters that it was a “state of the union” meeting.
The state of Bryant didn’t change, at least minutes-wise. Scott suggested earlier in the week that he might shave Bryant’s playing time by a couple of minutes to preserve his legs. Bryant logged 35.3 minutes Wednesday, just below his average of 35.7 coming into the night.
Marc Gasol and Mike Conley each scored 19 points for the Grizzlies (14-2), who were third in the league defensively before the game, giving up lowing 92.4 points.
They’ll be a playoff team, something the Lakers, and Kupchak, can only aspire to be at this point.