NBA: Kobe & Co. seeking consistency before playoffs
By BETH HARRIS
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES — It's the Los Angeles Lakers' goal to be playing their best basketball heading into the postseason. So far, they've hardly looked convincing.
Despite their 55-22 record and top spot in the Western Conference, Kobe Bryant & Co. continue to show an inconsistency that has plagued them this season. And now Bryant isn't bailing them out all the time.
He was 8 of 24 from the floor in a 100-81 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday that snapped the Lakers' seven-game home winning streak. Two days earlier, he went 5 of 23 in a win over the Utah Jazz hours after signing a three-year contract extension worth nearly $90 million. Bryant says his mangled right index finger isn't bothering him any more than usual.
"I'm going to get those looks in the playoffs and I'll take my chances there," he said.
Fans voiced their displeasure, booing the Lakers off the floor Sunday after they failed to clinch the No. 1 seed in the West and home-court advantage through the conference finals. They've lost four of their last seven.
"I'm always concerned, now more than ever. We should be," Bryant said. "This is an important stretch coming down, it's going to be a huge playoff battle."
The Lakers took a day off Monday. They return to practice for two days ahead of their final back-to-back of the season starting Thursday at Denver, which is in a tight race for the No. 2 seed. The Lakers are at last-place Minnesota the next night.
Their final three games are against Portland, currently eighth in the standings and a potential first-round playoff opponent; and non-playoff teams Sacramento and the Clippers.
"We execute our offense and we play better defense, that's when we become that team that's near impossible to beat in a seven-game series," reserve Luke Walton said. "It's just getting it to click that needs to happen. It's there, now we just have to all do it together consistently and we'll be fine."
After owning the NBA's best record earlier in the season, the Lakers have lost that to Cleveland. They need to win their five final games to have consecutive 60-win seasons for the first time since they did it four straight seasons from 1984-85 to 1987-88.
"They're not playing as well and they've lost a couple of games, but they're a solid team," the Spurs' Manu Ginobili said. "They have so many weapons. They're going to keep fighting and keep playing. They hustle and they play hard defense, too."
The Lakers' 106-92 win over the Jazz was their first double-digit victory since beating Indiana 122-99 on March 2.
They went 9-6 last month, with a series of close wins that paled in comparison to their early season dominance. They were a combined 36-10 in November, December and January, when the schedule favored them with a glut of home games.
"We should be just aware, aware of what the possibilities are when we don't play as well, when we have a couple mistakes that we shouldn't have," Pau Gasol said. "We want to end these last five games on a good note so we feel good about ourselves going into the playoffs, which is important."
They'll head into the playoffs with a rash of injuries, Bryant's broken finger being the best known.
Andrew Bynum could be out a while longer with an Achilles' strain, forcing Lamar Odom to start in his place. That's kept Odom from anchoring the bench and it's clearly not as good without him. The Lakers' reserves were outscored 20-4 by the Spurs.
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. Walton just returned after missing nearly a month with a pinched nerve in his back.
Never one to panic, Bryant remembers the teams he's been on that entered the playoffs with momentum only to end up facing elimination in a seven-game series. So he doesn't dwell on the particular ups-and-downs of the moment.
"We want to just get better," he said. "You want to try to minimize the menu of things you have to correct going into the playoffs."