Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has the ball stripped by Bulls guard Ronnie Brewer… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
In the final seconds of what had been three hours worth of jingle bell rock, the metaphor was as plain as the gasp that silenced it.
Kobe Bryant was trapped.
The Lakers' best player held the ball and a chance to clinch a rousing opening-day Christmas victory against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, but he was trapped.
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There were 20 ticks remaining. The Lakers led by one point. Bryant was surrounded by Bulls. His coach said he should have waited to get fouled. Bryant said he didn't have a choice.
Bryant tried to throw the ball to someone, but nobody was there. The pass was stolen. Derrick Rose sank a running hook shot. The Lakers lost.
And Kobe Bryant is still trapped.
For all the good Lakers feelings that emerged from their 88-87 loss Sunday — this Mike Brown guy has fitted them with fists and scowls and defense — there was one siren of doom.
Bryant needs help, the Lakers need another skilled player, and they need one soon, or they won't simply bore us to death, they will also lose a bunch of games while doing it.
"It's going to be ugly," Bryant said. "We're going to be grinding it out."
A Staples Center crowd that spent the first half of the game Sunday as if trapped in a giant yawn will buy this grind if the Lakers win. The roar returned when the Lakers' elbows and hips held the Bulls to a dozen points in the third quarter and led to an 11-point advantage late.
But the party ended with shocked silence everywhere, and nobody will buy this grind if the Lakers lose. This includes Bryant, who is not complaining yet, but he will eventually, and who can blame him?
While Sunday's defense was a revelation, even the return of brittle Andrew Bynum is no guarantee to help this offense. Without the firepower of Lamar Odom, the Lakers' attack spent most of the holiday game as if trudging through mounds of torn wrapping paper, and even though Bryant sucked it up with his injured right wrist and scored 28 points with seven rebounds and six assists, it was not enough.
Besides throwing the last pass to nobody, he took the final running shot while being triple-teamed, and that wasn't Bryant hogging the ball, that was a designed play.
Bryant needs help, and the Lakers front office knows it, or it wouldn't have tried to trade for Chris Paul, a rebuffed effort which led to one Staples Center fan dancing around in a white T-shirt reading, "Trade David Stern."
Bryant needs help, and if the Lakers can't figure out a way to get Dwight Howard, they needed to check out Sunday's earliest NBA game to find their next target.
How about Bynum to the Boston Celtics for Rajon Rondo? The Celtics also need to rebuild, and maybe they would rather do it around a big man than a temperamental little guy.
If that doesn't work, maybe they could deal Bynum to the New Jersey Nets for Deron Williams? The Nets need a center, and Williams is probably going to leave there after the season anyway, so why not now?
These are not new ideas. Surely Lakers officials even had them while watching Sunday's game, which introduced the town to a team dancing on the line of championship contention.
They will keep games close with this sort of defense. But they will need more to finish them. At times, it was cool to watch this different sort of action movie. But without the happy ending, Hollywood will eventually scorn it.
"At this level there are no moral victories," Josh McRoberts said. "We lost. We lost."
It was neat to watch McRoberts and Troy Murphy get sweat and scuff marks on their Lakers whites, the two new guys combining for 16 rebounds and three blocked shots.
It was interesting to watch kid shooters Devin Ebanks and Andrew Goudelock shoot a combined six for eight with only one turnover between them and to see Steve Blake finally break his way out of the triangle to score 12 points in more minutes than Derek Fisher.
But then, as with any Christmas afternoon party where the hosts finally grow tired and ditzy, it all fell apart. Pau Gasol and McRoberts each missed two free throws, the Bulls scored on four layups and a dunk, Gasol failed to help Bryant out of his trap, then Rose finally ended it as great players often end these things.
"We've progressed through training camp, sure, but this one stings," McRoberts said.
It stings even more when you hear Brown say that they are still such a work in progress that, "We're going to use some of these games as practice … we're going through growing pains, and we're going to learn from them."
Hey, Coach, if some of these games are going to be practice, shouldn't season-ticket holders be charged practice prices?
If Lakers officials learned anything on Christmas, it is that they need to give one more gift. They need to give it to their fans, to their future and, most of all, to Kobe Bryant.
A Happy New Year depends on it.