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Lakers' rest-heavy schedule comes at the right time

February 20, 2010 |  5:13 pm


Beware of any movement within the Lakers organization the following week. We're not talking about trades. That deadline has already passed. We're talking about the repercussions if Lakers guard Kobe Bryant isn't healthy enough to play Tuesday against Memphis.

"If not, I'm firing everybody," joked Bryant, who has missed the past five games because of a left ankle and tendon injury. 

All kidding aside, Bryant anticipates playing against Memphis after he practiced Saturday, but he'll have a much better idea how he feels tomorrow when he gets treatment.

The Lakers' schedule this week couldn't come at a better time. After their 87-86 loss Thursday to the Boston Celtics, the Lakers had the day off Friday, a short practice Saturday and plan for another day off Sunday before playing Tuesday at Memphis . With Bryant's sprained left ankle, Andrew Bynum's injured right hip, Luke Walton's pinched nerve in his lower back and Sasha Vujacic's sprained right shoulder, the Lakers hope the extra rest is the right subscription for full recovery.

The most urgent case obviously involves Bryant because of his skill level and because he's on pace to recover fairly soon. Bynum has already returned to the lineup for the past two games. Walton is out indefinitely. And Vujacic is expected to miss "a couple weeks," the team said Saturday.

And after today's practice, Bryant says there were several things that pleased him, including his elevation ("I can jump."), his conditioning ("I'm really fortunate I got these really huge lungs.") and his level of pain ("The ankle is still a little sore in certain points, but it went away." )

He joked that he would've stayed in the lineup had he known he was a game away from playing in 1,000 career contests, a feat guard Derek Fisher ultimately reached before Bryant ("I would've just limped through the game."). He kicked around the idea that Walton proposed when the Lakers trailed Boston Thursday by one with 2.2 seconds remaining ("He said next time what you do when you can’t play is sit on the bench in your uniform. If it comes down to that situation, just send yourself in like Mariano Rivera."). And then the interview came to a screeching halt when Bryant was asked what he thought of Tiger Woods' apology ("I'll catch ya'll later" as he walked away with a frustrated look.).

As soon as Vujacic bumped into Celtics center Kendrick Perkins nearly midway through the fourth quarter Thursday on a down screen, Vujacic fell to the ground hobbled in pain. He later found out he suffered a Grade-1 right shoulder sprain.

Yet, Vujacic remained in the game and was fine enough to attempt a field goal, but he felt much worse after the game and the following morning. That was evident in Saturday's practice, where he shot extra free throws with his left hand since he can't stretch his shoulder.

"It’s pretty painful," said Vujacic, who is receiving ultrasound and laser treatment but has declined to wear a sling. "It’s frustrating."

That feeling has permeated throughout most of the season with Vujacic playing a mostly limited role. But his minutes had picked up ever since Bryant's absence, and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson credited his defense in last week's game against Utah and in Thursday's game against Boston. There was also a clear increase in production in the last five games during Bryant's absence compared to his season average, including points (2.5, 4.4), rebounds (1.1, 2.0) and assists (.6, 1.8). Obviously, Bryant's injury is the most consequential, but Vujacic's absence definitely strikes a blow to the Lakers' rotation.

Per usual, Jackson maintained his stance that ultimately it's up to Bryant when he'll return to the lineup. Though Jackson thought the time off between games was helpful in that regard, he was leery of how it might affect team chemistry.

Jackson specifically cited the team's poor outside shooting since the All-Star break (27.3% from three-point range against Golden State and 25% from downtown against Boston) as something that could remain stagnant because of the time between games. That's why Jackson said Saturday's practice mostly centered on what he called "high energy drills" including fastbreak drills and practicing pull-up jumpers.

Even if the down time proves detrimental to team chemistry, Fisher and Lamar Odom welcomed the rest. After all, the Lakers' schedule will be far from forgiving fairly soon. In March, the Lakers play 10 road games and only four home games, including three sets of back-to-backs. Fisher expected the slow schedule now to ultimately help the team sustain energy when they need it most next month during the tough stretch.

--Mark Medina

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Photo: Lamar Odom and Sasha Vujacic force a jump ball after tying up Boston's Kevin Garnett in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 87-86 loss Thursday at Staples Center. Credit: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times.