FROM HOUSTON — It is inexcusable, the Lakers having to play five games against a team like Houston, and at times making it appear as if it's a struggle.
This thing should be over Sunday, the Lakers getting another chance to freshen up before continuing the playoff grind, but instead they're going to be exposed to injury, flagrant-foul crazed referees and whatever fate might have planned for them.
I blame it all on Sasha Vujacic.
He's supposed to be the dagger, John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Robert Horry sticking it to an opponent and in the process freeing up the team's superstar to do even more damage.
From start to finish, of course, it's all about Kobe, but setting up a wide open Vujacic often is a momentum-changer.
"I don't know what the problem is," said Vujacic, taking a longer shower than any other Laker, although he hardly worked up a sweat in missing five of six shots. "I'm getting some wide-open shots, and you could wake me up at four in the morning and I'm going to make that shot. But right now it's not there."
If the Lakers want to win the NBA title, they're going to need Vujacic to earn his pay.
"When they need a big shot, I'll be there," he said, his favorite song no doubt, "The Impossible Dream."
The announcers on TV were calling for the Lakers to deliver the knock-out blow Friday night, and while Trevor Ariza and Bryant would do just that, nothing is more irritating or deflating for the opposition than an effective Vujacic.
He's so annoying, Vujacic's not even disagreeing when it's mentioned. I wonder if he annoys himself?
It's even hard for Lakers' fans to like the guy the way he whines, carries on and goofs up sometimes, so just imagine how the other team feels when he's the one ripping their hearts out.
"I know, I know," he said. "I have to do it."
A year ago he made almost 44% of his three-point shots, but during these playoffs he's making 29%, his time on the court way down because obviously he can't always be counted on.
The Lakers have won six of eight playoff games so far -- essentially without him, but past experience suggests there is going to come a point in the next round or two when they're going to need a long-range jolt.
"I made a goal when the season started of being the best defensive stopper on the team," he said, and having failed that, maybe now his goal should be to make a few more three-pointers.
"I don't know why I'm not making them; my minutes are down, but that's not an excuse," he said. "I'm just waiting for that one game where I hit the big shot, really wake up and help my teammates. Next game."
He does that, and the Lakers probably are the championship basketball team that everyone expected to see rolling over Utah, Houston and more than likely, Denver.
It really shouldn't be the struggle that it seems to be at times.
MIKE BRESNAHAN, Times' beat reporter covering the Lakers, can't get a one-on-one interview with Kobe, but just before the game started, Kobe extended his fist toward Bresnahan.
You have to give Bresnahan credit, instead of ducking, he tapped fists with Kobe, who said, "You're going to write something good about us."
It wasn't offered as a question. Bresnahan's Take: "We'll see what you do," and then he ducked.
Hard not to write something good about the three-point shot that Kobe got off against the stifling defense of Ron Artest to close the third quarter. We'll have to see if Bresnahan wrote about it.
THE SCENE here was raucous, almost everything in red, the Rockets' cheerleaders wearing tops that spelled out "Beat L.A." across their chests. I checked, all 12 had it spelled correctly.
WHEN PHIL JACKSON sat down for his pregame news conference, there was a little lull, so I said, "Can I ask you a question?"
"Not first," replied Jackson, and I hear that so often. "Anybody else want to go first?"
No one did, so he surrendered -- well, sort of.
"Do you buy into this business of sending a message?" I wanted to know.
"I think Twitter is not a great idea, and e-mail is probably better," he said. "But I think direct contact probably sends the message best."
Hard to believe he doesn't appear on Letterman more often.
I ALSO asked the second question. "What are your feelings about trash talking?"
"I never liked it," Jackson said. "I think it's become part of the game the last 20 years, but I think you let your actions do the talking for you -- that's probably [best]."
OK then, so as a coach (making millions to call the shots) do you tell your players not to trash talk?
"No, because they've grown up with it," he said. "It's a part of how they play the game . . . they want to be known, and let it be known they've done something great."
CHECKED IN with Jeanie's Journal on lakers.com to find Ms. Buss grilling Jackson after a victory in Game 2.
Jackson is seen leaning back, both arms above his head, almost as if he didn't mind being interviewed. Never saw that guy before. He was wearing a "New York" T-shirt, though, and what is that all about?
I'm really rooting for Jeanie's Journal to be a success, but the problem is -- Jackson is such a bore on videotape. The guy just rambles on and on, and how he ever got a second date with her, I have no idea.
TODAY'S LAST word comes in e-mail from Ed Rubinstein: "Manny Ramirez tests positive and he gets a 50 game suspension that sidelines him for a bit more than 2 months. If he were a pro cyclist, the first positive drug test would sideline him for 2 years . . ."
If he were a cyclist we wouldn't care.