Limping into the playoffs

LOS ANGELES -- It was the shortest answer Phil Jackson gave during his postgame news conference following the Lakers' 91-88 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, but it was the most ominous as the Lakers head into the playoffs next week.

Asked whether any one of his 10 championship teams played like these Lakers have down the stretch, he shook his head and quickly said, "No."

In other words, this Lakers team, which has lost six of its past nine games, doesn't look like a champion.

At least not one that Jackson (who two weeks ago said winning a championship this season would be a "long shot") could recognize.

The Lakers might have come into this season as the favorites, but any competent bookie would have to side with Jackson when handicapping the team's chances of repeating. You can hide behind excuses like complacency, apathy and boredom for only so long before you are forced to admit there are some fundamental problems with this team that aren't going to be resolved in a week.

It's one thing to lose at New Orleans or Atlanta at the end of a five-game road trip, but the Lakers have been beaten by the three teams they are likely to see in the first round of the playoffs. Not only did they get run off the floor by Oklahoma City, but they dropped two nationally televised Sunday afternoon games at home to San Antonio and Portland the past two weeks.

"I told the team we looked to give this game away, and we certainly did," Jackson said. "We didn't want to win the game and they wanted to give it, but we wouldn't take it."

Despite Jackson's comments to his team after the game, the Lakers weren't looking to give anything away to the Thunder, Spurs or Blazers. They simply got beat by three teams that easily could do it again four times in the playoffs.

For all the excuses the Lakers have about missing Andrew Bynum with a strained Achilles tendon, let's not forget the Spurs beat the Lakers without Tony Parker and George Hill, who suffered a sprained ankle in the second quarter of the Spurs' 100-81 win. And let's not forget the banged-up-beyond-belief Blazers beat the Lakers in the fourth quarter without Brandon Roy, who left the game at the half with a sore right knee.

Some teams play through injuries and complacency; the Lakers, however, have used those as a crutch to get them through interviews after losses this season.

"We're not playing as well as we were last year," said Pau Gasol, who missed a game-tying 3-pointer as time ran out. "We're more banged up than we were last year. We had Andrew out but we have guys struggling with injuries and we're trying to get them back."

Bynum's presence certainly will help the Lakers and move Lamar Odom back to the bench, which should stabilize the much-maligned group, which was outscored 35-8 Sunday. But anyone who thinks Bynum will be able to return to the player he was after a month off is dreaming. Last season Bynum, who was averaging 14.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, returned to the Lakers just before the playoffs and averaged 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in the postseason. It would be safe to assume his playoff averages won't be much better than they were a year ago when and if Bynum, who was averaging 15.0 points and 8.3 rebounds this season, returns.

The Lakers' problems are larger than getting Bynum back and getting their bench to score more than single digits or getting Kobe Bryant, who went 8-for-23 Sunday, to overcome his myriad of ailments. This team simply isn't playing with any purpose or intensity. The fire that burned in these players last season after they were embarrassed by the Boston Celtics has been extinguished. What remains is a talented yet inconsistent bunch that hasn't looked like a championship squad this season.

"I told the staff while we were sitting on the bench watching the game the level of intensity is going to be so much different one week from this Sunday to next Sunday," Jackson said. "It will be an incredible amount of difference in the intensity that's there for the games. The critical nature of every play becomes very obvious. If we can match that, we'll be fine."

The Lakers, however, haven't been able to match anyone's intensity this season, and pretending a magical switch exists within each of them that will be turned on next week is a fairy tale. There is no switch, there is no quick fix and there is no easy answer for what ails the Lakers. They are an inconsistent team that will show flashes of greatness one game and embarrass themselves the next, and likely will do the same in the playoffs.

"I'm a little bit concerned because I want to win," Gasol said. "Point blank, I want to win and I want us to have the best chance to win a championship again, and in order to do that, we have to start playing the right way."

It has been awhile since the Lakers have played the right way, and expecting them to suddenly play that way after six inconsistent months of playing mostly wrong-way basketball is, in the words of Jackson, a "long shot."

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.