LOS ANGELES — The euphoria from Kobe Bryant's latest game-winning shot didn't last much longer than it took for the celebratory streamers to fall from the Staples Center roof onto the Toronto Raptors' heads.
Despite their 47-18 record and their perch atop the Western Conference standings, Bryant and his teammates say the Los Angeles Lakers are in their worst funk of the season. If they constantly must rely on Bryant's brilliance to bail them out at the buzzer, as he has done roughly twice a month this season, the superstar realizes their NBA title defense is likely to be gut-wrenching — and short.
"This thing tonight was garbage," Bryant said Tuesday night after the Lakers beat Toronto 109-107 on Bryant's 17-foot fallaway jumper with 1.9 seconds left.
Bryant was referring to the Lakers' efforts to correct the bad habits they evinced during a winless road trip last week, resulting in their first three-game losing streak in two years. But no Lakers player has been terribly happy with any part of their play over the past three weeks, dating back before their one-point loss to Boston on Feb. 18.
Coach Phil Jackson says they're overthinking on offense, and Bryant is questioning their defensive effort. Lamar Odom is angry that the pedestrian likes of Orlando's Matt Barnes and several Raptors have been cocky enough to trash-talk the champs.
"It's giving these teams a quiet confidence where they think they can beat us," said Odom, visibly furious after the narrow escape against Toronto. "I don't expect that. We've got to take it to teams. (They're) way too confident against us."
After ending their skid against the Raptors despite getting outplayed for most of the first three quarters, the Lakers are headed down the home stretch of the regular season, starting another three-game road trip Friday in Phoenix. They'll play 11 of their last 17 on the road, with every game a marquee event for opponents attempting to prove themselves for a playoff push.
The Lakers' purple road jersey always has a metaphorical target on its back. But the fast-starting, hard-finishing club that led the NBA standings for much of the season before falling behind Cleveland is having trouble playing with the consistency necessary to thrive under all that scrutiny.
"We need to play harder and execute a little better," said forward Ron Artest, who has scored more than 15 points just once in the last month. "Overall, we are not playing great. We're trying, and we continue to try. We had some awesome plays at the end (against Toronto), and we just have to make plays like that throughout the entire game."
Bryant has hit six or seven game-winning shots this season, depending on who's counting, including a preposterous banked-in 3-pointer to beat Miami in December. He has also missed a few, including a shot in Toronto and another last Sunday in Orlando, where the Lakers ended their trip with a loss in an NBA finals rematch.
When Bryant connects, it's the only memory of the game for most fans — yet Bryant knows his buzzer-beaters only mask problems because the Lakers didn't play terribly well in the previous 47 minutes.
"We scored a lot of points tonight, (but) that's not going to win championships," Bryant said after beating Toronto. "You've got to stop people."
Bryant is particularly disappointed by the Lakers' defense, which has allowed the last five opponents to score at least 96 points. Bryant committed two offensive fouls and generally played with a scowl during the first half against Toronto, clearly disappointed the Lakers hadn't built on their improved defensive effort last Sunday — one day after he yelled at his teammates during a meeting.
"Our defense in Orlando was much better," Bryant said. "The effort we had in Orlando will make it tough for teams to beat us four times in a series."
Jackson has been similarly critical of his team, though not with Bryant's outspokenness. Jackson noted five players at Monday's practice had hand injuries, including Bryant's broken finger, affecting their flow on offense.
"That leads to fumbles, turnovers and bad shots," Jackson said. "Everybody is guilty of not moving the ball, though."
Until last weekend, Los Angeles had never lost three straight since All-Star big man Pau Gasol arrived and helped them to consecutive Western Conference titles, culminating in last year's championship.
Gasol seems less upset about the Lakers' slump than many of his teammates, noting their road-heavy schedule in the second half of the season after playing a home-loaded early-season schedule.
"So far, we've been struggling," said Gasol, who contributed little in the second half against Toronto. "We've been playing well in stretches, but not consistently, and we've got to figure that out. We couldn't really find the energy for a while. Once we do, we'll be back on track."