- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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What they discovered from this lull is a conundrum that's as hard to solve as any defensive overload or offensive scheme they will face the rest of the season:
How should the team react when Kobe Bryant dominates the ball and the Lakers lose, knowing full well that the only reason they were even in the game at the end was because Bryant orchestrated a comeback by dominating the ball?
In the Lakers' 96-94 loss to the Magic on Sunday, L.A. trailed by 10 after three quarters and never would have had a chance to tie the game on the final possession if Bryant hadn't scored 18 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter. If Bryant's 20-footer with 1.2 seconds left goes in, the two-game skid could be over and Bryant is the hero in the clutch yet again.
And his shot was just a few inches to the left from that scenario happening.
But even if L.A. did win that way, Lamar Odom said it would have come "by pulling it out of our hat or somewhere else." Or specifically out of Kobe's somewhere else.
It wasn't all bad, as the Lakers made some of the adjustments they talked about in their team meeting Saturday. The turnovers were cut down, from an average of 18 in the last two losses to Miami and Charlotte to seven. They improved at defending the pick-and-roll, if only slightly, keeping the Magic to a manageable 34 points in the paint (although the 39 free throw attempts allowed were still too many). Their defense as a whole was better, too, holding Orlando to just 41.1 percent shooting from the floor.
But we learned that the meeting at Rollins College that coach Phil Jackson described as several players speaking up about the defense and Bryant adding his thoughts about determination and willfulness, was really more about Bryant than initially was let on.
"I cursed them out," Bryant said after Sunday's game, referring to the meeting almost flippantly, as if it was no big deal.
More specifically, that meeting was about how Bryant's over-involvement is limiting the offense.
While Bryant's stroke, which had been missing since he came back from his left-ankle injury, might have returned -- he has shot 45.6 percent during the current losing streak (right on par with his 45.8 percent season mark) -- the rapidity with which he's using that stroke is alarming.
Bryant took 28 shots against Miami, 21 against Charlotte and 30 Sunday in Orlando. That's an average of 26.3 shots per game. In the five games that Bryant missed with the injury, Gasol led the team with 15 shot attempts per game, followed by Shannon Brown with 14.2, Ron Artest with 12.4 and Lamar Odom with 10.4 -- and the Lakers went 4-1.
"We haven't been playing with a good flow out there offensively and it takes a lot of people out of their rhythm," Gasol said. "We need to figure out how to move the ball a lot more so there's a flow out there, there's a rhythm."
When Gasol was pointedly asked if the offense was being bogged down by how many shots Bryant has been attempting, he answered, "I don't know" at first, but then made the point he was trying to make regardless of whether he would be treading a little harshly on the guy who just hit back-to-back 22-footers with 26.4 seconds left and 12.9 seconds left in the fourth.
"Kobe's a great player," Gasol said. "We have to find balance as a team, as a unit out there. Kobe's a great player and he's probably the best offensive player out there. We understand that. ... But at the same time, we need to find that balance and we need to find balance with our interior game developing ... using it a little more and moving the ball and changing sides more, because that's the triangle, that's what it does. ... We need to get focused on that a little more. To find that balance, to find that flow."
Gasol, who had grumbled about his individual touches earlier in the season, made sure to clarify that his remarks weren't made as a personal crusade. When someone asked him if he needed more shots, he was coy and replied, "I would never say no to that. ... I'm just kidding ... not really." So he didn't demand anything of the sort because it would contradict what he just said about sharing the ball.
In fact, Odom basically echoed Gasol, letting us know that it wasn't a personal plea by the Spaniard.
"[We weren't] snappy," Odom said, snapping fingers on both hands and continuing to speak. "The rhythm of our team is really not there. Our offense is based on rhythm. ... We don't really have that flow."
Bryant was noticeably patient to start the game -- reversing the ball on the perimeter, dumping it down low, operating in the post and passing it back out -- but abandoned those practices when his teammates' shots weren't falling and the Magic's lead grew.
After the game, Bryant was smiling and still buzzing a bit from the one-on-one matchup against Matt Barnes down the stretch that stoked his competitive fire. He praised his team, even, crediting an improvement in the Lakers' effort and intensity and calling Los Angeles a "phenomenal" defensive team.
He didn't mention anything about the team's offensive struggles, other than calling his team more of a smashmouth offensive team with Artest replacing Trevor Ariza in the lineup.
The most animated he got was describing the 3-pointer he made with 12.9 seconds left that tied the game temporarily before it was determined to be only worth two because his toe was on the line.
"Man," Bryant said. "Man. I knew I was going to have that look before the game. I was sitting on that play the whole game. I got it exactly when I wanted it and my damn toe was on the line. I knew I should have cut my toenails this morning."
Maybe the real problem with the Lakers' offense is that Bryant doesn't see a problem with it.
Figuring out the Lakers' struggles is a lesson in conflict.