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L.A. Flaw

For the first time in three years, the aging, aching Lakers aren't the favorites to win the conference title

They are the two-time defending champs and have the third-best record in the league. But for the first time in three years the Lakers are on shaky ground in the Western Conference. Why? Because this season Los Angeles has combined the usual smorgasbord of problems—center Andrew Bynum's injuries, verbal volleys between coach Phil Jackson and his players—with a set of new ones.

The health of Kobe Bryant is the most pressing concern. Last July, Bryant, 32, underwent surgery on his right knee, his third operation in seven years. He told the New York Post in January that the knee was "bone on bone" and admitted he had not practiced with the team all season. At week's end he was averaging a career-low 33.2 minutes, down from 38.8 last year. The Lakers have limited Bryant to defensive drills and walk-throughs in practice, and scouts say he paces himself during games. In last Friday's 107--97 win at Denver, Bryant took just one shot in the fourth quarter. "He's not as aggressive," says a Western Conference scout. "You can tell he wants other guys to step up."

Other guys like, say, Ron Artest. Last season the mercurial forward slipped comfortably into a reduced role, averaging 11.0 points while successfully defending Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce in the playoffs. Artest's suffocating defense is still there, but the scout points out, "He is taking some bad shots at the end of quarters, and Kobe and Phil are looking at him like, What the hell are you doing? They can't control Ron right now."

Inconsistency on defense is also an issue. The Lakers held the Hornets to 88 points on Dec. 29 then gave up 104 to the Grizzlies four days later. This month they shut down the Cavaliers (57 points) one night, then gave up 110 to the Warriors the next. An inability to stop dribble penetration has been a major culprit, prompting Jackson to overhaul the defense a month ago.

Privately, the Lakers concede they most likely won't be able to catch San Antonio for the conference's top seed—at week's end the Spurs were 37--7, while Los Angeles was 32--13—but they still believe that, if healthy, they can beat the Spurs in a best-of-seven series. L.A. is just 7--6 against teams with winning records, including 2--5 on the road. Among the losses was a defeat at Utah in which the Lakers blew a 19-point lead, and they lost their only meeting with the Spurs by 15.

Nuggets coach George Karl attributes the Lakers' up-and-down play to the fact that their status as champs puts a bull's-eye on their backs. "They get the team they are playing's best shot every night," he said. "It's hard to do. It's hard to get to that mental level of commitment." Come playoff time, every game is like that. L.A. needs to find that level of commitment. Fast. Or their reign in the West could come to an end.

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A New Deal?

The Nets' decision last week to pull out of trade talks for Carmelo Anthony appears to make the Knicks the favorite to land Denver's All-Star forward. But don't count out Houston. The Rockets aggressively pursued Anthony last summer and believe that with New Jersey out of the picture, they can offer the Nuggets the most appealing package of draft picks, young talent (such as Kevin Martin and Luis Scola) and salary-cap relief (the $17.7 million expiring contract of Yao Ming, which is made even more attractive by the fact that insurance will cover 70% of his salary for the rest of the season). Then there is this: According to a league source, the Rockets are willing to do a deal for Anthony without his first agreeing to sign an extension.


Photograph by GREG NELSON

CENTER OF ATTENTION Bryant's minutes are down because of his ailing right knee, but he remains the focal point of the Lakers' attack.