| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Friday's come-from-behind victory over the lowly Charlotte Bobcats was the latest chapter in an 'Alice in Wonderland'-style season for the Los Angeles Lakers where very little has turned out to be what it seems.
Ace closer Kobe Bryant, held scoreless by Charlotte in the first half, finished with 20 points on six-of-15 shooting and eight assists as the Lakers overcame a 20-point deficit in the third quarter to win 100-93.
Once again, though, Lakers fans were left to wonder what would happen next in a bitterly disappointing campaign which began with lofty expectations after the off-season acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
With that duo linking up with fellow All-Stars Bryant and Pau Gasol, many pundits instantly installed the Los Angeles franchise as the main threat this season to the NBA champion Miami Heat, and Lakers fans licked their lips in anticipation.
However, Bryant and company have since limped their way to a bitterly disappointing 24-27 record to sit 10th in the 15-team Western Conference, outside the top eight playoff spots.
They have not been helped by an ageing line-up, along with a spate of injuries and three different head coaches this season, and Bryant expressed his frustration after Friday's desperate win against the (11-38) Bobcats, the NBA's worst team.
"We have to play the right way," Bryant told reporters after saying he had been "irritated" by the team's all-round display in Charlotte. "When we have shots available, we take them.
"If we don't, move the ball on. It can't be about individual touches. If we lose the game, everybody points the finger at me for not shooting the ball. And that's fine.
"As long as I'm confident that I make the right play to help as a team, that's the most important thing. We all need to follow that example and just play for each other."
With Nash, Howard and Gasol having all missed several games this season due to assorted injuries, the 16-times NBA champion Lakers have tried to adapt - and often in unpredictable fashion.
Spanish forward Gasol, one of the most gifted players in the NBA, has struggled to mesh with fellow post player Howard in coach Mike D'Antoni's free-flowing system, prompting calls by some fans for the return of Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson.
Center Howard, a three-time defensive player of the year, was given priority as the post player and with Gasol never relishing his role from long range, the Spaniard ended up on the bench for several games.
A revitalised Gasol averaged 20 points and 8.6 rebounds when he returned to the starting lineup with Howard sidelined by a shoulder injury for three games but the Spaniard has since been ruled out for at least six weeks because of a foot injury.
In another unexpected switch, shooting guard Bryant and point guard Nash have swapped roles in several games as the Lakers desperately strive to find a winning system.
"Frankly, Kobe reminds me a little bit of Magic Johnson the way he's playing right now," said veteran Nash, who has established himself as one of the top players of all time in the NBA for three-point shooting, free throws and total assists.
"He's controlling the game."
Nash, an eight-time All-Star, is fully prepared to sacrifice his own assist statistics by assuming more of a shooting role if that will help the Lakers win games.
"I welcome this," said the 39-year-old, who recorded 17 points and seven assists against the Bobcats. "We're so much better this way regardless of how many opportunities I get to make plays.
"It is a big difference for me ... but I'm getting a good rhythm and I think I'm feeling more comfortable doing it," added Nash, who missed several games at the start of the season because of a leg fracture.
"At this stage of my career, I'm all-in as far as trying to figure this out, how we can all be better together."
Based on the roller-coaster nature of Friday's game against the struggling Bobcats, the Lakers are still trying to figure it all out. (Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Julian Linden)