AP Sports Columnist
If the guarantee was somewhat shocking, it's only because the Los Angeles Lakers have been shockingly bad.
That's hardly Kobe Bryant's fault, though as usual he's the one charged with fixing the mess. He has to, because his coach can't seem to figure it out, and neither can the stars brought in to help him win a sixth ring.
Feel free to file this in the category of desperate men doing desperate things. But everything else has failed for the Lakers in a season like no other, so forgive Bryant for trying to make one last stand.
"It's not a question of if we make the playoffs," he told Sports Illustrated earlier this week. "We will."
Lakers fans surely hope so, even if this was hardly the scenario they envisioned when the season began. After luring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Los Angeles in the offseason, the Lakers figured to be fighting for the top seed in the West, not scrambling after the last one.
But scramble they must, and even a guarantee from one of the greatest players in NBA history may not be enough.
It used to be that however Bryant went, so went the Lakers. But while Bryant is arguably playing some of his best ball in years, his team is so dysfunctional that some of the brightest minds in basketball -- Kobe included -- seem bewildered about it all.
The scorer became a facilitator and it worked for a while, with Bryant dishing out assists by the handful. But that was the job the Lakers brought in Nash to do, and if he's not doing it he's just an undersized 39-year-old defensive liability who has no business playing guard in the NBA.
Nash was supposed to be one of the missing links for the Lakers, a point guard who would make sure Bryant and Howard got the ball early and often. But he seems lost in an offense he should be thriving in under Mike D'Antoni, his coach during his best seasons in Phoenix.
So does Howard, who has struggled all season to adapt to the pick and roll, one of the most basic plays in basketball. Only in the last few games have he and Nash seemed to be coming closer to an understanding about how it should be executed and the reasons why.
Meanwhile, Bryant and Howard seem to be closer to an understanding of their own. For Howard that means playing harder and trying to get more involved in the offense. For Bryant, it means offering some positive praise instead of the type of veiled criticism he leveled when he suggested recently Howard needed to worry less about his injured shoulder and get more of a sense of urgency in his game.
If the Lakers are confused, their fans are too. They've watched as the team switched coaches, changed offenses, and played defense with a lack of intensity that can be felt from up in the rafters at Staples Center. Their owner, Jerry Buss, died this week, further clouding the identity and future of the team he made so wildly successful.
On Friday night the puzzle continued at home, before the usual glittery array of Hollywood types. Bryant returned to the role of shooter and scored 40 points, and Howard had 19 and 16 rebounds. But Nash struggled again and the Lakers needed four Bryant free throws in the last 13 seconds to beat the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that had lost six in a row coming in.
"We're getting there," Howard said. "You could see the effort and emotion that we have on the court."
Unfortunately for the Lakers, getting there is going to be difficult. They're 27-29 on the season, ninth in the Western Conference and 3
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.