- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2011

DALLAS (AP) - One big man is struggling, the other is spouting off about “trust issues.” Their enforcer got carried away at the end of the last game and is suspended from the next one.

Their mental edge is gone, and so is their home-court advantage. They’ve even lost the approval of one of their greatest icons.

Asked how to get them to snap out of it, their Zen master coach suggested “flogging them.” Then he laughed. Hey, Phil Jackson’s retiring in a few days or weeks, so he might as well crack wise.

Such melodrama is vintage Hollywood, but usually for the make-believe folks. Or the Clippers. Certainly not the realm of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Yet early in their second-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, Bryant and the Lakers are in deep trouble, and they know it.

Los Angeles is down 0-2 going into Game 3 on Friday night. While three teams in NBA history have won a seven-game series after losing the first two at home, no team has rallied from an 0-3 deficit. That makes the next game pivotal in the Lakers‘ quest for a third straight championship.

“Desperate, that’s a strong word,” Bryant said. “I think when you play desperate you don’t play your best basketball. What we need to do is relax, focus on what we’re doing wrong and the mistakes that we’re making. We have plenty to review and lock in on.”

Their problems start on defense.

Dirk Nowitzki is having his way with the Lakers no matter whether they try covering him with someone big or small. That happens with all teams. The surprise is that Los Angeles is struggling with everyone else, all the way down to speedy little backup point guard J.J. Barea.

Barea scooted all over the court in Game 2 on Wednesday night until the final minute, when Ron Artest swung his forearm and whacked Barea in the face. Artest was thrown out and the league told him Thursday that he can’t play in Game 3.

If the Lakers‘ invincibility wasn’t already gone, that cheap shot made it clear how frustrated this team is.

Just look at the inside tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Gasol is playing so poorly on both ends of the court that he was booed in the second half of Game 2, at least until many fans left early or lost interest. After the game, Bynum spiced things up by saying “all 13 of our guys have trust issues right now,” further describing those problems as “deeply rooted.”

Lakers great Magic Johnson is disgusted. On Wednesday night, he tweeted, “It’s going to be a tough climb to come back and I think their chances are slim.” On Thursday, he tweeted that Bynum should’ve kept his mouth shut.

All told, the Lakers look tired, mentally and physically. Maybe it’s the toll of reaching the finals each of the last three years.

This is nothing new, either. They’ve had several stretches this season when they’ve looked vulnerable, only to revert to their title-worthy form. Just last round, they lost the opener to the Hornets and were tied 2-2 in the series before Bryant pulled them through. What seemed like a jump-start to another title run is now looking like it might’ve been a last gasp.

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