The return of Kobe Bryant created plenty of excitement and optimism around the Los Angeles Lakers, though it's yet to pay off with a victory.
Without playing on Thursday, the team suffered another loss.
Steve Blake is out for at least six weeks with an elbow injury, meaning Bryant is expected to shift over to point guard for lengthy stretches starting with Friday night's visit with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Bryant returned to the floor Sunday, but he's shown a little rust in his first two games back after eight months of rehab for his torn Achilles tendon. He missed nine of 11 shots in a 106-94 loss to Toronto in his debut, but looked better on Tuesday, going 6 of 11 from the field and finishing with a team-high 20 points in a 114-108 loss to Phoenix.
"It's a process," Bryant said. "You just continue to figure out what you can and can't do. Every game, you try to step up and do a little bit more and just go from there."
The Lakers (10-11) haven't lost three straight this season, but they face a tall task Friday against the Thunder (17-4), who are 10-0 at home.
Their long-term prognosis got a bit dicier on Thursday as well, as the team announced Blake would miss at least six weeks with a torn elbow ligament. With Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar already out, Bryant is expected to handle the starting point guard duties with Xavier Henry backing him up.
Blake's injury initially happened Nov. 26 in Washington, but he continued to play through it.
"I'm just really heartbroken for him," Bryant told the Lakers' official Twitter account. "He's put in a lot of hard work and played phenomenally."
While Los Angeles may be in for some adjustments offensively without its point guard, some defensive changes are in order as well. The Lakers have allowed an average of 106.6 points in their last seven games, and now face the high-scoring Thunder.
Oklahoma City has won 12 of 13 and has averaged 111.0 points during its latest winning streak, which stretched to four with Wednesday's 116-100 victory at Memphis. Russell Westbrook led the way with 27 points and nine assists while backcourt reserves Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson combined for 35 points.
Like Bryant, Westbrook got hurt in April. But the recovery from his lateral meniscus tear seems to be going well, as Westbrook has averaged 23.0 points and 9.3 assists in Oklahoma City's past three games.
'Russell is calming down, relaxing and just playing his game,' Kevin Durant said. 'He is getting confidence. We tell him when he does no one can stop him.'
Westbrook's eyes seem to light up whenever he sees the Lakers. He's averaged 29.8 points in his last six games against Los Angeles, including the final two games of the 2012 Western Conference semifinals.
Westbrook had 37 points and 10 rebounds when the teams last met in Oklahoma City, a 122-105 Thunder win on March 5.
Oklahoma City is rarely lacking for offense with Durant and Westbrook out there, but lately it's started to crack down defensively. The Thunder's past 10 opponents have shot just 40.5 percent - 30.7 from 3-point range.
"We put our mind set every time we set out on defense first and on the team first," Durant said. "That's what we have been doing. We have putting everything aside. We put our individual stats, shots, rebounds, and assists aside. We are grinding our system offensively and defensively.
"We have to just keep it up. We just have to have that mindset where we can't let anything distract us from what we want to do in the game."
Durant has scored at least 35 points in four of his last five regular-season meetings with the Lakers.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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