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Internal Struggle Could Be What Breaks Lakers

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Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

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(CBSSPORTS.COM/Ken Berger)– Kobe Bryant left no doubt about the state of the defending champs after a second straight blowout loss Saturday, a second consecutive Christmas Day no-show that has thrown the Lakers into their annual episode of soul-searching chaos.

“We always suck on Christmas,” Bryant said in an epic postgame news conference after the Lakers offered little resistance and barely a hint of interest in a 96-80 thrashing at the hands of the Miami Heat. “They should just take us off this day.”

Not a creature was stirring at Staples Center, at least no creatures wearing white jerseys. But it had less to do with the date on the calendar and more to do with the Lakers and their reinforced competition. This time, for a variety of internal and external reasons, their annual crisis of overconfidence will be much harder to fix. And Bryant knows it.

“We’re playing like we have two rings,” Bryant said.

His jersey removed and a leather jacket in its place, Bryant then walked briskly toward the loading ramp, stopping to explain the source of his concern about this Lakers team.

“It’s everybody,” Bryant said before venturing into the crisp Southern California night, his only companion the realization that this championship journey will be harder than perhaps any he’s experienced in the past. “We’re not playing with any focus or the right focus because we have two championships, because we know what it takes to get it done. So if you know what it takes to get it done, it’s like studying for a test. You know the test is on Tuesday, you’ve got a week to prepare and you don’t prepare the whole week in advance. You want to prepare the night before.”

Essentially, the Lakers have become lazy. In the interview room, Bryant had talked about lack of focus, lack of work in practice, the absence of preparation. Worst of all, the absence of competitive instinct — a.k.a. caring — which is something Bryant will never tolerate.

“I think these games mean more to our opponents than they do to us,” Bryant said, a damning admission of just how complacent the champs have become even in the face of heightened competition from teams like the one that toyed with them on their home floor Saturday. “And I think we need to get that straight. We need to play with more focus and put more importance on these games. I don’t like it.”

Funny, it was supposed to have been the Heat that were going to have problems melding the egos with their much-maligned Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But it was Miami that played like a team Saturday, played rugged and intelligent team defense and shared the ball beautifully at the other end of the floor. It was James who walked off Bryant’s floor victorious for the second straight year, an effortless triple-double on his résumé. And then it was Bryant, grim-faced and serious on the loading ramp, talking about how the Lakers were the team with the ego problem.

“Our first run in ’09, we had a period where we were playing soft, which cost us a championship in ’08,” Bryant said. “Last year we had a similar situation that we’re going through now, where we’re not playing with a sense of urgency or the right focus, egos not in the right place. And here we are. Every team goes through it, but as a leader you’ve got to figure that out and get these guys going.”

Bryant’s method for delivering that message, he explained, would be to “kick some ass in practice. … I’ll beat it in their head till it gets through.”

But the Lakers have problems that go beyond ego, attitude and urgency. Their biggest advantage over their fortified predators, their size, has been neutralized by yet another uncomfortable attempt to integrate a post-injury Andrew Bynum into the front court. Bynum isn’t yet ready to play major minutes, and Phil Jackson served him his latest tweak Saturday by admitting that Bynum “probably could stand to lose 10 pounds.”

The team defensive concepts that the coaching staff asked for were not delivered, either. Jackson didn’t name names, but he seemed particularly displeased with Ron Artest’s foolish early fouls and defensive freelancing.

“Personalities overplayed what our team defense required and so people got distracted,” said Jackson, who later expounded, startlingly, that the two-time defending champs were thrown off by the names on the back of the Heat jerseys. “… Just James or Wade, you know, their personalities out there.”

Jackson wasn’t finished naming names where Bryant wouldn’t. He accused Pau Gasol of “lollygagging,” “not shooting the ball with a base,” and, “putting a soft release on his shot.” The Lakers’ 44-26 advantage in the paint was deceiving, because L.A. missed so many easy looks close to the basket and was dominated inside by Bosh, who eschewed his usual 18-foot jumpers and did most of his work in the paint with 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting. For the Lakers, a team that has beaten only two teams that currently have a winning record — the Bulls and Trail Blazers — there was not even a hint of pride or desire to prove a point.

“Our confidence is always there,” said Lamar Odom, who was on the receiving end of Bosh’s impactful performance. “If we played them again right now, we’d feel like we can win. Sometimes that’s our problem. Our cockiness.”

The Lakers got their first up-close look Saturday at the monster Pat Riley created back in July, and it is beginning to look like a monster that will be roaring in June. Only for the first time in the Lakers’ run of three straight trips to the Finals, it is beginning to look like they are no lock to join them.

The way Dallas and San Antonio — the champs’ next opponent Tuesday — are playing, the Lakers will have a far more difficult path out of the West. If they can navigate it, they will face an opponent — either Boston or Miami — that will be more difficult to beat than the Boston and Orlando teams they’ve vanquished for their back-to-back titles.

“We don’t pay attention to that because we’ve been through everything,” Bryant was saying on the loading ramp. “But we should. And we need to.”

The competition has changed, and instead of rising to meet it, the Lakers have shrunk. They’re still the same overconfident team that believes it will all work out in the end. It’s a bad habit that Bryant knows he must defeat before he can begin to dream of defeating the Heat or Celtics — not to mention the Mavs or Spurs — a few months from now.

“The game has to be the most important thing,” Bryant said. “You have to focus on it. You have to play every game like it’s your last. You have to be attentive to what’s going on. This is serious stuff. You don’t just have two rings and say, ‘OK, we’re satisfied with what we’ve got.’ I’m not rolling with that. I’m not going to let that slide.”

And there it was. With the creation of a new Big Three in Miami … with the Celtics’ old Big Three playing better than ever … and with far tougher obstacles than the Nuggets or Suns in the West … who would’ve thought Bryant’s biggest enemy would come from within?

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