Lakers stumble into playoffs with injuries, losses
EL SEGUNDO – Sitting in his padded black chair on the sidelines, Phil Jackson watched his team finish off a 2 1/2-hour practice Friday. The best thing he saw? Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum back in action.
The Los Angeles Lakers definitely missed their MVP and 7-foot center while stumbling through losses in seven of their last 11 games. Sure, they still earned the No. 1 seed in the West and homecourt advantage throughout the conference finals, but they hardly looked like the defending champions.
“We’ve all been a little bit frustrated with how things sometimes have gone,” Pau Gasol said. “Right now it’s all about getting together, get focused and get back to business.”
No one believes that more than Bryant, who detests talking about his injuries.
He sat out four of the team’s final five games to rest a swollen right knee and a broken finger on his right hand. He’s got a bum ankle, too.
“I admire him that he plays through injuries and has done that all year long,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “A lot of guys in the league do not want to put themself out there if their body is not feeling good or up to par but Kobe does it.”
Bynum missed 13 straight games with a strained right Achilles’.
“He looked great,” Derek Fisher said. “If it’s based on how he looks today, he’s ready.”
Bryant ended practice by shooting free throws on the side, while Bynum joined the rest of the team for sprints.
“I feel pretty good. It was good to get up and down,” Bryant said. “It was one of the longest, hardest practices we’ve had all year.”
Bynum said he felt good, too, although he doesn’t expect to play his usual minutes in Sunday’s playoff opener against the Thunder.
“Obviously, I got to get my timing back and conditioning back, but I would definitely be able to be out there and be effective,” he said.
Jackson said he’ll reserve judgment on Bynum until Saturday, when the effects of his first practice in a month will be evident. He was pleased with Bryant’s shooting touch.
The injury bug extends to just about every player on the roster.
Reserve center DJ Mbenga got elbowed in the head and was sent to a specialist to check on a possible concussion.
Ron Artest has been playing with a bruised left heel and a sprained left thumb, while Shannon Brown is playing with a sprained right thumb and Sasha Vujacic has a sprained right shoulder. Luke Walton just returned after missing nearly a month with a pinched nerve in his back. Jordan Farmar pulled a hamstring and sat out most of the regular-season finale.
“They’re the defending champs, they have a team that is built to win now and for a few years from now,” Brooks said. “They’re still going to be a very good team.”
Yet, Jackson rejects the popular perception that the Lakers simply flip a switch when it’s time to play well.
“Intensity can grow a little bit, but I’m not a believer in turning the switch on,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been harping about for the last three weeks, getting it together. They know they have to play and it’s not just an instantaneous thing they’re going to be able to do.”
In case his teammates needed reminding, Fisher addressed them during the annual team meeting held the night after the regular season ended.
“I just wanted to share some things that I felt were important,” he said, declining to be specific.
“I do think there will be a lot of things that we’ll do much better starting on Sunday. Just having the opportunity to have Kobe back in the lineup, (Bynum) is in the lineup. We’ll be a much better basketball team than we have been the last couple weeks on Sunday, but whether or not that’s good enough to beat a team who’s playing really well right now, we’ll have to see.”
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