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George Hill (right) and the Spurs did all they could to stay in Kobe Bryant's face in Tuesday's showdown.
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Bryant reverting to old script, and Lakers paying the price

Posted Dec 29 2010 11:05AM

SAN ANTONIO -- It seems that Kobe Bryant and Don Draper have a great deal in common.

Mad men.

In the most recent season of the celebrated TV show, Draper's personal life is a mess. In the current stretch of this NBA season, Bryant's Lakers have the look of something that fell off the back of a garbage scow.

Draper the TV character lives angry. Bryant the real-life hero of five championships plays angry.

Maybe it's time for a rewrite.

A blind man could have seen this one coming. Ever since the nationally televised beat-down at the hands of Miami on Christmas Day, Bryant has been a snarling and seething mass.

"It'll get fixed," Bryant had promised in the afternoon.

Then he tried the best way he knows how in the evening, by swinging his hammer at the same nail over and over and over again.

Kobe took the first four Lakers shots of the game, six of their first seven and wound up making only 8-for-27.

When the 97-82 loss to the Spurs was over, the Lakers' locker room was a most curious place. About a half dozen players were rolling their eyes, shaking their heads and biting their tongues to avoid stating the obvious. Bryant blamed himself for not making more shots, but never for taking so many.

"I just got to put the ball in the damn hole when I need to," he said. "It's my responsibility. It's my job. I got to do it."

This is vintage Kobe. Trouble is, the vintage was 2007, not a very good year when it came to adding to the Lakers' championship collection.

This is the Kobe who practically trails sparks behind him coming down the court and spews venom while he's gathering himself for another 1-on-5, anger-fueled sortie to the basket.

"He can do that," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "He's a willful guy and he can play with that energy. That's one of the few guys that can do that in this league."

Yet if the ultimate goal is to get all of his teammates playing with the same level of energy and pulling in the same direction, it might seem wise to include them.

During one stretch in the second and third quarter, Bryant missed 13 shots in a row.

"I wasn't out there," Jackson said. "I just sit on the bench. But if I was playing, I probably wouldn't pass him the ball the next time."

Lamar Odom sat in his locker stall and spread his arms open wide. "I don't know what to do say," he said. "I don't know what you want me to say."

Pau Gasol has been criticized of late by Jackson and others for being less than effective in the post. But the center did muse that a team with the significant size advantage the Lakers held over the Spurs might want to take advantage of it.

"I don't think we played the smartest game, put it that way," Gasol said. "I don't think we attacked smart out there. We've got to recognize what's going on and understand where our strengths are against certain opponents and try to exploit them.

"Whatever needs to be fixed, we've got to do it all together. It can't be an individual effort from nobody. It's got to be all together on a string, like a family."

As Yogi Berra might have said, it always gets late early around the Lakers. Two December losses in a row and somebody is usually dialing 9-1-1. Three straight by double figures and you expect to see the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse escorted across the sky by a squadron of flying monkeys. Those folks in Hollywood do know how to build drama.

But this time could be different, because there might be a legitimate reason to be fearful. For one, the Spurs demonstratively proved they would not back down from Bryant's emotional edge and took the game to the Lakers with their aggressive running and fearless 3-point shooting.

This is not last season, when the Lakers had to withstand a challenge from the Cinderella Suns in the Western Conference finals. Or the season before, when they had to stop the emotionally fragile Nuggets.

This time around, the league-leading Spurs -- and the Dallas Mavericks right on their tail -- are improved, solid, deep and for real.

Two seasons ago, the Lakers held the No. 1 seed in the West from start to finish. Over the past two seasons, they've been out of first place for a grand total of 34 days. They're now six games behind the Spurs, tied with Utah for the No. 3 seed and searching for answers that presumably don't involve Bryant increasing his shot production.

"I liked his energy to come out and set a tone," Jackson said. "He came out with a purpose and established something. What did he take the first six shots? Seven shots? Made the first four. Then it's time to slow down and get everybody involved."

In the last three games, Bryant has shot 9-for-16, 6-for-16 and 8-for-27 and his team has lost to Milwaukee by 19, Miami by 16 and San Antonio by 15.

On one hand, the Lakers are getting closer. On the other hand, Bryant may be getting closer to the edge. He's drawn four technical fouls in those three games.

"That's how you win championships, play with that attitude," he said. "Got to stick with it."

In one corner of the locker room, Kobe spat and snarled and promised to take care of the situation.

In the other corners, there were Lakers fearful of what that meant.

Mad men, for different reasons.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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