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For the Lakers, it's panic time. Or is it?

The defending champions are struggling as the playoffs approach. But they've seen this scenario before and it turned out pretty good in 2001.

April 01, 2010|Mark Heisler

What comes after DEFCON 2?

These are dire days in Lakerdom, with the team no longer lacking urgency and looking worse than it did before.

The Lakers arrived home from their 2-3 trip to find everyone on sky-falling alert ... including Lakers officials.

Happily, the team didn't go 0-5, or Southern California might not still have been here to come home to.

Owner Jerry Buss made a rare appearance at practice Thursday, although it's not known if he stopped by after meeting with General Manager Mitch Kupchak; met with Kupchak to assess the crisis; wanted to reassure his players; wanted to threaten his players, or tell Coach Phil Jackson he had to start taking his $3-million pay cut early.

Meanwhile, Jeanie Buss pleaded for calm over ESPN 710, asking listeners, "Please, please, don't panic. This is not the time to panic."

I guess not, with the Lakers still No. 2 in the NBA, No. 1 in the West by 4 1/2 games, and struggling primarily because they don't have their starting center, Andrew Bynum, who's expected back soon.

Oh, not that soon after all?

Now it's looking more like next weekend ... or the weekend after ... which is when the playoffs start.

"What was said to me, for this type of injury, it could be weeks," said a typically bemused Jackson at practice Thursday.

"When people say, ‘It could be weeks,' I'm glad they don't say months....

"Weeks could be anything from two to four ... or five. And then if it gets above that, you really get anxious."

This just in: Lakerdom is already anxious.

Tipping his own concern, or being Phil Jackson, he even compared this to the Lakers' 2001 title run, although he said he was only talking about their sloppy play.

Actually, sloppy play was the least of their problems that season, otherwise known as The Title Defense From Hell.

The Shaquille O'Neal- Kobe Bryant feud burst into the headlines. Kobe said he might be better off elsewhere. Jackson said he would help him leave if that was what he wanted. Shaq pushed to trade Kobe for Phoenix's Jason Kidd.

By April, the organization seemed to be splitting along Shaq-Kobe lines.

"Now it's more than Kobe and Shaq," said co-owner Magic Johnson. "It's much more. Now instead of focusing on basketball, we're focusing on issues outside basketball and I think it's taking a toll of the team and the management."

Before Bryant returned from an injury that season on April 10, Jackson stressed the need for a "seamless transition."

Meanwhile, O'Neal stressed his need for the ball ("When I'm not involved, I'm not the player you're used to seeing. I'm somebody else and I can't be somebody else. When I'm somebody else I get upset.... When I get those dog cookies, then the dog will walk, sit, bite, run, fetch, do whatever you want.")

A month before, when Bryant returned from another injury, everyone said similar things ... after which Kobe put up 95 shots in three games.

This time Bryant came back passing the ball. Teammate Rick Fox said later, "I tell you the truth, I was feeling some emotion."

Closing the season on an 8-0 run, the Lakers then went 15-1 in the playoffs, the all-time record, winning the second of three titles in a row.

If the Lakers did all that with the current media landscape, there would be panic in the streets.

"It's just comical in a sense," said Derek Fisher, with Jackson and Bryant the last remaining 2001 Lakers.

"We don't have anything distracting us as a group. We're pulling for each other. We want the best for each other. We're not competing against each other. It's just a matter of figuring it out."

It's not hard to figure out.

Bynum isn't a savior but he is the missing piece of the puzzle.

Without Andrew, they're willowy. With him they have the game's tallest, deepest front line.

With Bynum, Pau Gasol goes from a flamingo center to a towering power forward no one can match up with.

Meanwhile, Lamar Odom goes to the bench which is Launch Control without him. Jackson is awaiting Luke Walton's return eagerly, just to have a reserve willing to in-bound the ball.

So, it's not over yet. I don't think.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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