- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Nobody on the Los Angeles Lakers was kidding themselves by thinking Kobe Bryant's return would suddenly vault them from a team flirting with .500 to a squad shooting straight for the top of the Western Conference standings.
"Of course we want to win, but we definitely know it's going to be different," said Xavier Henry after L.A.'s 114-108 loss to the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night at Staples Center, their second straight defeat since Bryant's comeback. "Everybody in the world knows it's going to be different."
To paraphrase former NFL head coach Dennis Green, the Lakers are who we thought they were going to be so far in bringing back a 35-year-old Bryant to the mix after he hadn't played a game in nearly eight months.
But (to continue the play on Green's epic meltdown) just because everyone was aware of the challenges that Bryant's return presents, does that mean they should be let off the hook and given a pass to figure things out before any judgment is cast?
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni saw it coming from a mile away, warning his team and repeating his message time and again to the media that the Lakers would have to do more to help out Bryant in the early going than Bryant would be doing to help them.
"We hoped we would win at home and then maybe have some problems [later]," D'Antoni said. "I'm not out of my mind just because we're struggling. I knew we could, that could happen, it's going to be up to the coaching staff and players to figure this out."
In D'Antoni's ideal scenario, somehow the Lakers will figure out how to master the balance between patient minds and active bodies as Bryant reintegrates himself.
In essence, he's asking for his team to compartmentalize how it welcomes Bryant's presence and how it still can execute the way it did without him for the first month and a half of the season.
It sounds like a tall task and actually stirs up memories of D'Antoni's predecessor on the Lakers' sidelines, Mike Brown, who used to tell his team when it complained about the clunky offense they were running that the solution would be just to play more defense.
Basketball, of course, doesn't work that way. It's as interconnected as a team sport gets. Making one lineup change doesn't just affect the player being benched and the player being given more burn, but it can impact the entire locker room the way that a twist of a Rubik's Cube column can change the order of how the colors appear on all sides of the square.
Bryant wasn't the reason the Lakers lost to the Suns. He led the team in scoring with 20 points on 6-for-11 shooting. He added two rebounds, three assists and coughed up a digestible three turnovers, down from eight the last game. The Lakers lost because they gave up 56 points in the paint to the Suns while allowing them to shoot 51.8 percent as a team.
The trick in the short term, D'Antoni hopes, is that the players can disregard how things are going on offense with Bryant still getting his legs under him and still throw their entire being into the other end.
"We're going to have to man up a little bit more," D'Antoni said. "We're going to have to toughen up. It's going to have to be a dogfight out there for a while."
He wasn't done bringing home his point.
"Defense is communicating, talking and almost spitting blood out there," D'Antoni said. "There's got to be a little more urgency in our game. It's like you play good defense and somebody doesn't box out and there goes an offensive rebound. It just deflates you."
But even D'Antoni has found himself at a loss at how to prioritize Bryant's adjustment period and his team's needs. D'Antoni admitted at shootaround Tuesday that the Lakers' interior defense had been "awful" but still went ahead and took two of L.A.'s best defenders in Wes Johnson and Robert Sacre out of the starting lineup in favor of Jodie Meeks and Shawne Williams with the explicit reason of giving the offense a better flow while Bryant is on the court. The moves counteracted one another. Yes, L.A.'s offense improved, going from 94 points against Toronto to 108 against Phoenix, but its defense in turn gave up 114 points instead of 106.
Was it inevitable that the transition period was going to go any other way than how it went for L.A. so far?
"I was expecting to get two wins here and we got two losses," Pau Gasol said. "So, that's the downside of it. The good side is that Kobe's back and you could definitely see a big improvement tonight from the first game."
And what about Bryant's expectations?
"I didn't really have any expectations," Bryant said. "You go out and you play and you read situations. I felt like in both games we were kind of knocking on the door, but we kind of shot ourselves in the foot every time we got to about two or three or four [points down]. We got to make those conversions."
And the players converting themselves into a team that can play with Bryant the same way it did without Bryant couldn't hurt either.