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Drama follows LA on the road

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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Taking advantage of an unexpected buyer’s market, an Emerson College student suggested to those waiting for a chance to glimpse Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Phil Jackson at the school’s athletic center yesterday that they purchase one of her Valentine’s Day candygrams.

Perhaps Jackson should have taken up the young entrepreneur on her offer and bought one for Andrew Bynum on behalf of the Lakers. Once again, the 23-year-old center’s name has surfaced in a trade rumor.

This one has Carmelo Anthony and Al Harrington coming to Los Angeles from Denver for Bynum and mercurial forward Ron Artest. The rumor appeared to blindside a Lakers team in the midst of a seven-game road trip, and with a significant game tonight against the Celtics.

Just 11 days ago, the Celtics pulled away from the Lakers in the fourth quarter and prevailed, 109-96, sending Los Angeles to yet another embarrassing home loss. The Celtics, Heat, Bucks, and Grizzlies have convincingly defeated the Lakers at Staples Center this season, while the Pacers, Spurs, Suns, and Kings also have walked away with wins there.

The Lakers won the first two games of this trip (they had to vacate Staples Center because of the Grammy Awards), beating New Orleans and Memphis, but tonight’s matchup holds special importance. Critics have lambasted the Lakers for struggling against the NBA’s elite. A home victory over the Bulls in November is really all they have to show, and there is concern that this crew has dropped a level from last year’s championship team.

But Jackson, whose team practiced at Emerson yesterday, said, “I still think when they’re playing their best, they’re the best team in the league. We’re still not playing great, but we’re looking better as a team.’’

Jackson understands the concern but won’t play into it. It’s still early February, and the Lakers are on a 57-win pace. Last year’s team won 57 games in the regular season and you know how it fared in the playoffs.

“It doesn’t bother me,’’ Gasol said of the scrutiny. “I understand the position that we’re in and how many people we have following us. It’s understandable you’re going to get some criticism if things don’t work out at times. We have to prove it but there’s a lot of time and a lot of season to prove it.’’

Yet this season has been dramatically different. Bryant, at 32, is slowly showing signs of age. Gasol is putting up his usual numbers but nothing more, and Bynum said yesterday he is not near 100 percent, following another offseason knee surgery.

Ron Artest, as in many of his previous stops, is making the Lakers regret his five-year contract, because he is regressing in Year 3.

And if that wasn’t enough drama, management is considering bringing aboard Anthony, who has yet to publicly ask for a trade or make a commitment to the Nuggets, although he did tell the Denver Post yesterday that he would “take a real hard look’’ at signing a three-year, $65 million extension if he is not traded by the Feb. 24 deadline.

The Lakers have little to offer other teams besides the potential of Bynum, once considered a franchise center before being bothered by nagging injuries throughout his career. With the core of their roster signed until 2013, the Lakers would likely consider acquiring an All-Star-caliber player to capitalize on their shrinking window.

“That’s not my expertise, my expertise is defense,’’ Artest repeatedly said yesterday on the subject of trades. “I don’t think [a victory tonight] will calm anything down, especially when you have passionate fans like the Lakers have and being in the media capital of LA. Things are always going to come up and happen.’’

Bryant reiterated the importance of having a dominant center, especially to compete with teams such as the Celtics, who signed Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal for the express purpose of competing inside with Los Angeles. The Lakers manhandled the Celtics on the boards during last spring’s Finals, and the 7-foot Bynum was a critical part of that effort.

“[Size] is very important,’’ Bryant said. “Size has always been one of our strengths and Boston has a lot of it and we have to see who wins that battle in the paint. Normally, who wins the battle of the paint and the boards wins the game.’’

Bryant has been a member of the Lakers since 1996, and has seen his share of drama. He barely raises an eyebrow at the Bynum rumor.

“It’s only a distraction if you listen to it,’’ he said. “You guys take the liberty of assuming that we actually read what you guys write. It’s not a distraction if you don’t read it. They’re rumors. We really don’t deal with the unknowns. We might as well talk about UFOs, too.

“If [Bynum] can’t deal with [the rumors], forget about a Game 7. I don’t need to talk to him about that. He’s a big boy. He can handle himself.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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