One team that has fallen out of the playoff picture and another that is right in the thick of it will square off when the Lakers, riding their worst losing streak since Bryant was a high school freshman, host the surging 76ers.
Los Angeles has lost seven in a row, its longest skid since dropping its final 10 games of the 1993-94 season. That’s also the last time the franchise failed to make the postseason, and was three years before Bryant became a Laker.
Now it appears the superstar guard, in his first season not playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal, won’t make the playoffs for the first time in his NBA career. Thursday’s 117-96 loss to Denver dropped the Lakers 5 1/2 games behind the Nuggets for the eighth and final postseason berth in the Western Conference with 14 games remaining.
Bryant was held to 18 points and committed six turnovers in that defeat, and sounded afterward as if he knew Los Angeles would be relegated to looking toward the future.
“It’s frustrating for me because I’ve played on teams where everybody knew the depths of the offense,” he said. “At the same time, we have to be patient. We’re a young team and even though it may not pay off this year, it may pay off the following year.”
Getting Webber at the trade deadline may pay off this season for Philadelphia.
His struggles, and a reported feud with coach Jim O’Brien, following his acquisition from Sacramento had many 76ers fans wondering if the team had made a big mistake. Finally, Webber, O’Brien and Allen Iverson appear to be on the same page.
The Sixers have won four of five—the only loss came with Webber sidelined by a leg injury—to take a firm grip on eighth place in the East. A win in this contest would push Philadelphia above .500 for the first time since it was 4-3 on Nov. 14.
“I just think it’s a whole new team, it’s kind of like we’re in training camp,” Webber said. “Coach has changed some of the things, I’m getting used to playing their way. I thought it would be quicker, as long as it clicks before playoffs we’ll be OK.”
Webber and Iverson had their best combined performance in Philadelphia’s latest outing, Friday’s 103-101 victory over Toronto. Iverson hit a 15-foot jumper with 2.4 seconds left to cap a 36-point performance, and Webber had 32 points, six rebounds and four assists.
“They are getting better and better at it,” O’Brien said of Iverson and Webber learning to play together. “If they play more and more together, they will feed off of one another.”
STANDINGS (through March 25): 76ers - 2nd place, 3 1/2 GB, Atlantic Division. Lakers - 3rd place, 19 GB, Pacific Division.
TEAM LEADERS: 76ers - Iverson, 30.5 ppg and 7.7 apg; Webber, 9.2 rpg. Lakers - Bryant, 28.0 ppg and 6.1 apg; Lamar Odom, 10.2 rpg.
SEASON SERIES: 76ers, 1-0.
LAST MEETING: March 15; 76ers, 108-91. At Philadelphia, Iverson scored 14 of his 36 points during a decisive third-quarter run. Bryant was held to 20 points, and just four after the first quarter.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: 76ers - 14-20 on the road; Lakers - 21-13 at home.