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Lakers Need to Overcome Injuries

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LOS ANGELES (AP) _ With the NBA's most successful coach and one of its top players leading the way, the Los Angeles Lakers are shooting for a return to prominence after hitting bottom two years ago.

The process might be delayed by a lengthy injury list entering the season, with Kobe Bryant at the top.

``Everybody's excited about the opportunity we have,'' said Bryant, who didn't play during the preseason while recovering from knee surgery. ``We felt like we were on the verge of doing something special last year. We want to carry it over.''

The Lakers won three championships and went to the NBA finals four times in five years before parting ways with coach Phil Jackson and trading Shaquille O'Neal following the 2003-04 season.

Then came the disaster of 2004-05, when the Lakers dropped to 34-48 and failed to make the playoffs for just the second time since 1976.

Jackson returned as coach last season, and the Lakers improved to 45-37, earning a berth in the playoffs. They took a 3-1 lead over Phoenix in the first round before the Suns rallied to win the best-of-seven series.

Bryant knows making the playoffs again isn't a given.

``The West, man, is full of gunslingers,'' he said. ``We just have to make sure we're ready to combat that.''

Bryant wanted to play in a preseason game or two, but his knee wouldn't allow it. He's still hoping to be in the lineup Tuesday night when the Lakers host the Suns, of all people, to start the season.

At least three players on the roster _ centers Kwame Brown (right shoulder) and Chris Mihm (right ankle) and guard Aaron McKie (back) _ won't be ready by opening night.

Guard Shammond Williams (abdominal strain) is questionable for the opener, and forward Vladimir Radmanovic (sprained right hand) is probable.

Those players along with a few others were slowed by injuries during the exhibition season. And Jackson didn't attend any games while recovering from hip replacement surgery Oct. 3. He has said all along he intends to be on the bench opening night.

Jackson said one goal he has is to spread the scoring around a bit. Bryant's 35.4-point average last season was the NBA's highest in 19 years.

``More players have to be involved in the aspect of scoring,'' Jackson said. ``We've got some guys who can score that are going to be assets to us if we can take advantage of them.''

That would include Radmanovic, a newcomer known for his outstanding long-range shooting, along with the injured players and holdovers Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf and Andrew Bynum.

Bryant said he believes he won't have to score as much as last year, and that's OK.

``If I have to, hopefully I'll be in the proper physical condition to do that,'' he said.

With Brown and Mihm sidelined at least a couple more weeks, the 19-year-old Bynum will start at center against the Suns. Bynum didn't play much as a rookie last year, but looked like a different player during the preseason.

``He's made strides _ he's not a boy anymore,'' Jackson said.

``I got a little bigger,'' Bynum said. ``The goal is playing time, to earn time and help my team win this year.''

The injuries figure to make it difficult for the Lakers to get off to a fast start, but the early-season schedule is in their favor _ 15 of their first 20 games are at home, and a 16th is a designated road game against the Clippers.

``If you're playing the right kind of ball, you're going to be fine, and that's what we'll get across to this team,'' Jackson said. ``Yes, we'd like to get off to a good start, but it's an 82-game season and when you want to end up playing well is in April and May.''
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