MIAMI It's usually the same conversation whenever your humble correspondent intersects with Kobe Bryant.
More than once this season, Kobe has left no doubt he knows where the Stein Line stands on the Lakers' playoff chances.
"Didn't you pick us not to make it?" he asks.
The response: "Do I have to answer that?"
"That's right," Kobe continues. "You said we had no chance to make the playoffs."
The Line's retort: "I never said no chance."
"Saying we won't make it," Kobe concludes, "is the same thing as saying no chance.
"We'll see how you're feeling at the end of the season."
If you're wondering how Bryant is feeling about now, facing a brutal stretch drive just to claim the piddling eighth spot in the West, the word is defiant.
He refuses to believe what media types everywhere and the Lakers' rough remaining schedule say about his NBA tournament hopes. He seems to delight in surveying reporters and confirming that "no one standing in front of me" thinks the Lakers will be facing the Spurs or the Suns in Round 1.
He's confident that he'll be feeling better at season's end than any mere scribe, even though he'll confront Shaquille O'Neal on Thursday night for the third time (counting Christmas Day and the All-Star Game) knowing it's Shaq who's the real MVP candidate with the first shot at a fourth ring. And knowing that it's Shaq who's back as a marketing force; O'Neal was honored Wednesday with his own Wheaties box, bound soon for grocery stores nationwide.
Bryant had 26 points and 10 rebounds, compared with O'Neal's 25 and 12 on Thursday, but Shaq's Heat prevailed over Kobe's Lakers 102-89 in the much-hyped rematch.
It takes several questions just to get Bryant to acknowledge the possibility that the Lakers are (gulp) headed for the lottery. Kobe insists, though, that he's indeed prepared to absorb the copious amounts of blame that'll be shoveled onto his shoulders in that doomsday scenario.
"If that's what happens, I'll be ready for it," Bryant said. "It's all part of leadership."
Which is his way of saying that you needn't expect to hear much nostalgic remorse from No. 8 if the Lakers, presently No. 9 in the West at 32-32, climb no higher in the standings over the final 18 games.
O'Neal was asked the other night in New York if he ever plans to sit down with Bryant and reach some sort of truce. "Not ever," Shaq said.
Same goes for Kobe's plans to lament the dissolution of the Lakers' would-be dynasty. Shaq's Heat might be the hottest team in the league, and Phil Jackson could well prove to be the hottest coach-for-hire on the open market this summer, but Bryant isn't about to say he misses them. Not ever, probably. And definitely not this spring, even if the Lakers with 10 road games to go and 13 of 18 remaining against clubs with records at .500 or better finish behind Denver and/or Minnesota in the race for No. 8.
The reality of his current predicament has simply prompted Bryant to hatch a new long-term view. When he passed through Dallas last week, he urged his critics to judge him down the line on his "body of work" as opposed to this season alone.
"Anybody who sits back and says the Lakers are going to be awful for the rest of my career, for the rest of all eternity, that's ridiculous," Bryant decreed.
"People thinking we're not going to bounce back and be a contender, they're wrong."
For reassurance, he recalls his high school days. His freshman season at Lower Merion in suburban Philadelphia, according to Bryant, remains by far the worst team he ever played on.
"We were 4-20 and I was this little, skinny, 13-year-old kid," he says. "Then we bounced back and won a state title."
In the interim, as he awaits the front-office moves that can transform a defenseless and smallish Lakers roster into a contender again, Bryant continues to believe that he can disprove the masses over the next month.
It's a group, incidentally, that includes TNT's Magic Johnson, who also happens to be a Lakers vice president.
"Right now it's going to be very, very difficult for us to make the playoffs, especially the way Denver is playing," Johnson said during a recent ESPN appearance.
"Kobe's been doing great getting his shot and his points, but that hasn't translated into wins because he hasn't gotten the other guys involved in the game. That has to be the level he grows into next.
"Shaq is gone now. Your crutch is gone. You wanted it be your team, so now you're going to really have to take them to the next level but not through scoring yourself. It's by helping the other guys score, and also giving them confidence. If the star doesn't have confidence in them, the other guys will hang their hands. They don't believe in themselves if you don't believe in them."
It's tough to argue with Magic, but the feeling in this cyberspace remains that it's also up to the coach (Frank Hamblen now, just like Rudy Tomjanovich before him) to get Lamar Odom more post touches and help bring some of Bryant's other teammates into the game more. It's too easy to say that it's all on Kobe.
Without trying to gloat about our preseason prediction and I'll be the first to acknowledge the error if the Lakers do snare the eighth slot we see L.A. as one of the season's surprise teams. Tomjanovich resigned without warning after just 41 games. Injuries have rendered key veterans Vlade Divac and Brian Grant unable to contribute. Bryant has been playing on a bad ankle for more than a month.
Given all those circumstances, 32-32 ain't bad. Some would say (yes, that means us) that the Lakers, as presently constituted, are overachieving at that pace.
Question is, how many seasons of .500 ball can Angelenos take before Bryant starts hearing some really disconcerting stuff?