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Lakers under pressure after slow start to season

By Julian Linden

NEW YORK (Reuters) - These are uncertain times in Laker Land. One of the National Basketball Association's glamour teams is struggling and no-one is sure why, or how to fix it.

The Los Angeles Lakers, a team packed with superstars and a history steeped with success, are off to their worst start to a season in nearly two decades.

They have won just nine of their first 23 games to lie 12th in the Western Conference standings, leaving players and coaches scratching their heads to find a solution.

"We don't have a stability or sense of purpose of what we want to do," conceded future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant.

Mike D'Antoni, who took over as head coach last month, has borne the brunt of the criticism. He has introduced a new system of playing, with the focus on attack, that his players are struggling to adapt to.

On Thursday, the Lakers gave up an astonishing 41 points in the first quarter of their game against New York Knicks.

They fought back to regain "some respect" but still lost for the sixth time in their last seven games. The Los Angeles Times newspaper typified the despondent mood in California with the headline: "Lakers' defense takes night off against Knicks."

"We are having a recurring theme in the first quarter," said D'Antoni. "We need to solve that problem real quick."

KEY PLAYERS HURT

The Lakers, who won their 16th NBA championship just three seasons ago, have only missed the playoffs twice since 1976 and still have time to catch up if they can get all their best players fit.

In the offseason, they acquired two key players in a blockbuster trade, guard Steve Nash and center Dwight Howard, to join forces with Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace.

But Nash has been sidelined since the start of the season after fracturing a bone in his leg while Gasol has had knee problems and Howard has been struggling to recover from a back complaint.

Mike Brown was fired as coach after just five games, prompting speculation that Phil Jackson, who led the Lakers to five NBA titles, would return. But D'Antoni was given the nod instead, leaving him little time to acquaint himself with his team and introduce a new system while some of his key players were injured.

Bryant said it was unfair to blame D'Antoni for the team's slow start and added he was confident things would turn around once everyone was on the court together.

"It's been a huge adjustment for all of us, we have some figuring out to do, and we have some key pieces out," Bryant said.

"When they come back we'll get this thing locked and loaded and make some adjustments."

The return of Nash, a two-time NBA Most Valuable player, is looming as the key because of his ability to control the game and take pressure off Bryant, who has been flourishing despite the team's bad showing.

"I hope I can help when I come back," said Nash. "We are treading water and we are trying to find that connectivity.

"Hopefully we find that soon because we are losing ground."

(Editing by Gene Cherry)

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