- Associated Press - Monday, February 21, 2011

EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. (AP) - Matt Barnes returned to practice with the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, shooting free throws and doing non-contact drills just six weeks after tearing cartilage in his right knee.

Kobe Bryant realizes the veteran swingman is probably the only reinforcement he’ll get for the Lakers‘ run at a third straight title.

Just like everything else that happens to the Lakers these days, that prospect doesn’t seem to bother the two-time champions.

“It’s a marathon, but you see the finish line,” Bryant said while going back to work at the Lakers‘ training complex after winning his record-tying fourth MVP award at Sunday’s All-Star game in Staples Center.

“I’m concerned, (but) it’s no different than last season,” Bryant added. “There’s always a level of concern. Every team is concerned at this point.”

General manager Mitch Kupchak said last week he thinks a trade is unlikely before Thursday’s deadline, and coach Phil Jackson has said the Lakers have the ingredients to win another title.

With 25 games to go, the Lakers (38-19) would seem to have plenty of reason to be concerned about whether they can compete with the NBA’s elite _ but after reaching three straight NBA finals and winning two titles, there’s apparently little doubt in their collective minds.

After a practice stretching nearly three hours on Monday, the Lakers will return to Staples Center to host Atlanta on Tuesday night. Los Angeles spent the last seven games on its longest road trip of the season, limping into the break with three straight losses after winning the first four.

The Lakers lost to NBA-worst Cleveland last Wednesday night, leaving the players with a long weekend to think about the most embarrassing defeat in a season already including home losses to Sacramento, Milwaukee and Memphis.

But did the Lakers stew? Not a chance.

“We’re more annoyed than worried,” said Lamar Odom, who spent the weekend ignoring the All-Star festivities after not getting chosen for the West squad. “We know what we have left to do in the regular season. It’s a test we need, and a test we’re looking forward to. We just need to improve our focus and play more like we’re used to playing.”

While Odom and Ron Artest spent the long weekend with family when they weren’t working on their innumerable side projects and business ventures, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he didn’t even watch film until Monday, sitting at home and “soaking up the sun” when girlfriend Jeanie Buss wasn’t dragging him to Bryant’s enshrinement in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

The Lakers just don’t panic, even at this low point in an up-and-down season. They’re still looking forward to a boost from Barnes, who is averaging 7.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists in his first season with the Lakers.

“He brings a great deal of energy in his shooting and his defensive intensity,” Bryant said. “We’re looking forward to having him back.”

Barnes has missed 20 games since getting hurt Jan. 7 while going after a rebound against New Orleans. He underwent surgery two days later, and his return to practice was ahead of the two-month projected recovery time.

Barnes is expected to go through perhaps three more practices before returning to uniform, likely next week.

The long weekend also was beneficial to center Andrew Bynum, who got ample rest for his surgically repaired knees. He missed a game against Houston three weeks ago with a bone bruise in his knee, and he’s still struggling to return to top form after missing the first 24 games of the season.

“It’s getting better, but it doesn’t feel the same since before the surgery,” Bynum said. “It will come back. I just need time.”

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