It's simple: Lakers need to play better

Back in late January, after the Lakers had just downed the 76ers in Kobe Bryant's hometown of Philadelphia, Bryant was in a talkative mood, waxing nostalgic about his prep days at Lower Merion High School with writers he knew since his teens.

As the conversation about his past twisted and turned, Bryant ended up making a statement that would end up pertaining to his future, some four months later in the Western Conference finals.

"I'd like for us to go back to the old rules," Bryant said at the time. "Get rid of the 'crutch defense,' known as the zone defense, and have guys guard man-to-man and stuff like that [and allow] hand checking and all that. I think that's better basketball."

Long before the Phoenix Suns were taking Games 3 and 4 to even the series 2-2 headed into Thursday's pivotal Game 5, Bryant was railing against the zone defense that Suns players even admit to being "girly."

Well, the NBA's rules committee hasn't planned any emergency meetings to change things up since the Suns used their "crutch" defense in Phoenix to win two games by an average of nine points after they had lost five times to Los Angeles this year by an average of 15.6 points while playing man-to-man.

A crutch is traditionally considered something to lean on, not something to pick up and use to whack somebody over the head with, but that's what the Suns' zone did to the Lakers in Phoenix.

The Lakers, riding high a week ago when they won their first two games of the conference finals at home, extending their postseason winning streak to eight in the process and placing them just two wins away from the NBA Finals, have stalled since then.

Bryant and Pau Gasol might have maintained their high level of play out in the desert, but the rest of the team seemed to have deserted them.

Andrew Bynum was completely absent in Game 3, his injured right knee holding him to just two points and two rebounds, and while he was better statistically in Game 4, he was still not everything his 7-foot, 285-pound frame can be on the defensive end.

He has to play better.

Lamar Odom averaged 18 points and 15 rebounds on 64 percent shooting in the first two games and just 12.5 points and eight rebounds on 37 percent shooting in the next two games.

He has to play better.

Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown combined to score 38 points on 13-for-20 shooting in the first two games and just 13 points on 5-for-22 shooting in the next two games.

They have to play better.

Ron Artest made two fewer shots in Games 3 and 4 than he did in Games 1 and 2 and he did it with three more shot attempts. He also had zero steals in Phoenix while he had four to start the series in L.A.

He has to play better.

Derek Fisher had 10 fouls in two games in Phoenix, struggling to keep in front of Steve Nash and the rest of the Suns' speedy guards, putting Phoenix into the penalty early in quarters and allowing it to shoot free throws with the clock stopped.

He has to play better.

Even Bryant and Gasol, for all of their offensive output, were not dominant on defense by any stretch. Bryant left Jared Dudley wide open with halfhearted close-out attempts on several occasions and Gasol allowed Amare Stoudemire to receive the ball too easily in the low post, rather than consistently denying the entry pass.

They can play better, too.

The Lakers averaged 126 points on 57.8 percent shooting in the first two games and 107.5 points on 48.9 percent shooting in the next two games. The Lakers' defense held the Suns to an average of 109.5 points in the first two games and then allowed 116.5 points in the next two.

As a team, everybody has to play better for the Lakers.

Playing at the Staples Center should help. Los Angeles is a perfect 7-0 at home this postseason and generally, playing with the energy of fan support behind you tends to close up gaps that might spring up from lack of execution.

But as encouraging as the home court is for the Lakers' chances, the quick turnaround is just as damning. Three out of the Lakers' four losses this postseason have come after just one day between games. And the Lakers don't have that streak of never losing three in a row since Gasol arrived any more either; that ended back in March, when L.A. went 0-fer on a three-game trip through Miami, Charlotte and Orlando.

With all of the things that need to change in order for the Lakers to get back on track, Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson wouldn't change one bit about his team's predicament.

"There's absolutely no doubt that we love this," Jackson said after Wednesday's practice. "This is what champions are made of. We had this situation with Oklahoma [City, in the first round], we had it with Denver last year in the [Western Conference] finals. It should be like this. This is what it should be if you have the best teams in the West going up against each other. It should come down to a challenge like this if teams have the grit and the ability that they're here."

That challenge will surely include another heavy dose of zone defense by Phoenix, much to Bryant's chagrin.

"Like I told them," Jackson said, "if you can't meet this challenge, why go to the Finals?"

Dave McMenamin cover the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com