Lakers guard Kobe Bryant heads to the bench during a timeout Sunday at Staples… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Just what the Lakers needed, a new year!
As great as the last one was with their fifth title of the new century, you may remember things were getting dicey as the last days of 2010 ran out.
The year 2011 dawned on a Lakers team that's No. 3 in the West, six games behind San Antonio, two behind Dallas going into Sunday's game . . . which means they were looking at playing the Spurs and Mavericks on the road in the playoffs?
Yes, it was time for a new start . . . a new urgency.
And so Sunday night, they buried someone for a change, pounding the Memphis Grizzlies, 104-85!
Oh, that was Memphis 104, Lakers 85?
Your two-time defending NBA champions are so messed up, they can rest on Saturday while Memphis, the No. 10 team in the West, is losing in Salt Lake City, flying out afterward and getting here early Sunday morning, and still get out-worked, out-hustled and out-cared by the Grizzlies.
The Lakers still have their old swagger, but if the other teams are running, they'd better pick up the pace . . . sometime.
Just not Sunday.
Kobe Bryant scored 17 of his 28 points in the third quarter, trying to rally his sagging teammates after trailing by nine at halftime.
Actually, Coach Phil Jackson said Kobe "screwed up the game."
If only the Lakers didn't need Bryant to get them back into it. . . .
Whatever Kobe's faults, he brings it every night, which isn't something you can say about the team as a whole.
Having vowed to scorch his teammates after the Christmas Debacle against Miami, and watched them take a nosedive in San Antonio three days later, Bryant couldn't very well vow to scorch them anew.
So, he did it the polite way.
"I think the big issue is individually, finding things that motivate you," Bryant said.
"I'm pretty self-motivated but I think for the guys, from talking to them, it's important to find little challenges so they can get up every single night, whether it's reading one of your . . . stories or whatever it is, you've got to find something that gets you going a little bit. . . .
"That's the role that you guys [the press] play in this thing. You guys write doom-and-gloom stories. I think that actually builds up a lot of tension.
"Most of the guys don't read them, but you can feel the energy from the crowd when you go out there, how concerned everybody is, so that does put a lot of pressure on us."
WARNING TO LAKERS FANS:
Please don't take anything in this story as suggesting everything won't be fine for the Lakers again.
I mean, miracles happen all the time.
And now, back to our story.
Actually, Staples Center was quiet as a church Sunday night.
Two $2,600 courtside seats next to the Lakers bench sat empty. Super-fan Norm Pattiz, who is always on his feet shredding programs on the championship ring he wears, spent most of the night slumped in his seat.
I mentioned that to Kobe.
"That's exactly my point," he replied.
By then, I was really confused as to whether we were being too tough or soft.
As I like to do in these situations, I turned to Kobe for guidance.
"Absolutely," he said, signing off on a rip job.
"It's a win-win for everybody. It builds great tension for us and you sell a lot of papers."
OK, everybody out there — this has been a rip job!
At this point, Kobe was probably wondering how he got started in this wacky conversation, but that's how it goes when you want to throttle your teammates and all that's available are some lowlife reporters.
Bryant actually did say something that made sense:
"It's the title," he said, naming the goal that's supposed to be motivating them.
"I think we're looking too far down the road [rather] than looking at the game that's right in front of you. You can't skip steps to look too far down the line."
And you Lakers fans, don't get too high, or too low.
Try applauding, but politely.