Reporting from Newark, N.J. — Kobe Bryant was irritated, without a doubt, even though the scoreboard showed a Lakers victory.
It's hard to blame him after the Lakers ambled through another listless game, waking up in the final few minutes Sunday to beat the hapless New Jersey Nets, 99-92.
As Pau Gasol experienced another poor shooting game and the Lakers got pummeled in the paint by a staggering 26 points, 58-32, Bryant had seen enough, even though he was showered with M-V-P chants in the final seconds by a crowd that seemed more Staples Center than Prudential Center.
He didn't want to hear from an East Coast reporter that the Lakers were maybe "pacing" themselves, perhaps saving ammunition for a better opponent on a better day.
"We've just got to muster up the energy, muster up the motivation to go out and play night in and night out," he said in a low, even voice. "We're not doing a very good job of it right now. I'm [ticked] at it. But in my older age, I've adopted patience, at least for you [media] guys to see anyway."
Has he shared his views with his teammates?
"Sure," he said, pausing. "In a polite way."
Ron Artest had another poor game, making one of seven shots, and the Lakers' reserves were outscored by those of the Nets, 25-18.
Above all, Gasol made only six of 19 shots, finishing with 15 quiet points and growing increasingly aggravated as the Nets' big men shoved him around on offense and also went over his back for rebounds.
"It's been kind of a 'just go out and beat up Pau' type of philosophy — don't let him have anything easy, stay on his body, rough him up as much as you can," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of opposing teams' strategies. "The referees are just going along with it. Everybody's just doing it and wearing him out and trying to be physical with him all the time.
"He gets a little frustrated. He's got to get a mental attitude towards that, that 'I'm going to have to take care of business on my own if the referees aren't.'"
Gasol acknowledged he was affected by the lack of foul calls.
"I didn't get one call all night as far as guys coming up on my back. It's just a little bit frustrating, getting them off my back and out of my head," Gasol said.
Bryant had a simple solution: "Just play through that. . . ."
Bryant had 32 points and six assists, including two key passes in the last two minutes after Nets guard Devin Harris tied the score at 87-87. Bryant found Gasol for a layup and on the next possession fed Lamar Odom for a dunk to help beat the Nets (6-18).
"That's something that we talked about in practice — you can't stand and watch," Bryant said. "When teams go zone on us, you've got to move. [Odom and Gasol] moved and we were able to take advantage of their defense."
The Lakers can now look ahead to the return of Andrew Bynum, who will be back Tuesday against Washington.
Or will he?
Bynum insists on practicing at least one more time, but it is not clear how long the Lakers will practice Monday in Washington. The thrust of their day will be a meeting with President Obama, part of the annual tradition of the president meeting with the NBA champion.
"We've got to get a practice in," Bynum said. "We haven't really been able to do that."
The Lakers planned to practice the day before playing New Jersey, but it was scrapped for two reasons — they got stuck in a two-hour traffic jam, and the health club they planned on using had been, uh, redecorated.
"They had a Christmas party," Jackson said sheepishly.
Before Sunday's victory, a couple of hours before their sluggish effort against the Nets, Jackson said the Lakers were pretty much in cruise control, unable to manufacture the "desperate need" required to win games.
"I think our big guys are playing tired and as a result, we don't have a lot of that backbone that we've had before," he said.
Maybe Bynum will change that when he returns. The Lakers sure hope so.