LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant unwrapped a heating pad from his left ankle, joked with a referee. Then, during a timeout with 6:11 remaining Tuesday night, he peeled off his purple warmup shirt and checked back into a close game.
Like he did so many times in the weeks before he ruptured his left Achilles' tendon on April 12, he prepared to lead the Lakers out of another big hole.
But not this time. There was too much confusion, too many mistakes by his new teammates as the Lakers lost, 114-108, to the upstart Phoenix Suns (12-9).
The Lakers (10-11) are struggling to mold the style that led them to a 10-9 start without Bryant around the dominant superstar.
"We've lost our little stuff and that's all you need in the NBA," Coach Mike D'Antoni said, "and it makes it tough to win ... If you're not rolling, you're not going to win."
D'Antoni criticized the team's psyche -- "We're struggling with who we are," he said -- defense, and interior defense. The Lakers were outscored in points in the paint and were outrebounded 43-33.
Bryant has tried to ease into the season, allowing players such as Nick Young and Xavier Henry to handle the ball, and pressuring the defense by setting screens and rolling to the basket.
"It's a learning experience," Bryant said, "and I mean that in a sense of when you have a young team, you have to remember, constantly remember it's a marathon not a sprint."
Put simply: Against the Suns, Bryant was better, the Lakers weren't.
Bryant finished with 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 29 minutes. He made all eight of his free throws and committed just three turnovers. It marked vast improvement from a nine-point, eight-turnover debut Sunday, in a 106-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
Bryant scored four quick points out of that fourth-quarter timeout, a signature turnaround jumper, two free throws. But that was all the comeback had in store this time around.
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