Another late game-winner from Kobe Bryant didn't make the Los Angeles Lakers feel much better, and this may be their last chance for a while to get a true boost of confidence.
Before a very easy stretch of the schedule, the Lakers desperately want a strong all-around performance Friday night when they visit a well-rested Phoenix Suns team which has been playing well.
While Phoenix (40-25) has won 14 of 18 to move into a virtual tie for fifth place in the West, Los Angeles (47-18) has split its last 10 to see its lead atop the conference dwindle to 2 1/2 games over red-hot Dallas.
"We need to play harder and execute a little better," said forward Ron Artest, averaging 6.3 points on 4-of-24 shooting in the last three games. "Overall, we are not playing great."
Bryant has been very critical of his team, particularly on defense, and referred to the Lakers' most recent effort as "garbage" after a 109-107 home win over Toronto on Tuesday. It was nearly their fourth consecutive loss, but Bryant's 17-foot fallaway with 1.9 seconds left provided the difference.
"We scored a lot of points tonight, (but) that's not going to win championships," said Bryant, averaging 32.8 points in the last four games. "You've got to stop people."
That could be tough against a Phoenix club which leads the league in 3-point shooting at 40.5 percent and with 109.5 points per game.
Plus, the Suns should have fresh legs after getting the last five days off in a strange schedule quirk this late in a season.
"It's important because we're a little banged up," coach Alvin Gentry told the team's official Web site. "A lot of times it would be a bit discouraging because we've been playing with a good rhythm and you hate to break that up by going a full week without playing. But with us, I think it's OK because we could use this week to get guys right."
The Suns' only four losses in the past six weeks were to teams among the West's top eight.
The Lakers' next three games after this one are against the West's worst teams -- Golden State, Sacramento and Minnesota -- followed by a matchup with a last-place team from the East -- Washington.
"It's giving these teams a quiet confidence where they think they can beat us," an angry Lamar Odom said after the narrow win over Toronto. "I don't expect that. We've got to take it to teams."
Opening a three-game trip, the Lakers look to avoid losing five consecutive road games for the first time since March 4-15, 2007.
Los Angeles has lost two straight in Phoenix, giving up 118 points in each. Amare Stoudemire's 26 points helped the Suns to a 118-103 home win Dec. 28 in the most recent meeting.
"Everybody in Phoenix seems to dislike the Lakers which definitely gets us excited about playing them," reserve Jared Dudley said. "But I think any time you're playing one of the league's best teams you're going to get up for it."
Stoudemire totaled 26 points in the previous two matchups this season and the Lakers won by a combined 39. He's scored 30 in each of his last three games.
Another big man providing a lift is Robin Lopez, whose post presence defensively has helped Phoenix go 16-8 since he joined the starting lineup. Now Lopez tries to limit the effectiveness of Andrew Bynum, averaging 17.4 points and 10.4 rebounds in his last seven games against the Suns.
Lopez could see extended minutes because backup center Channing Frye was suspended for this game for throwing a punch in a 113-105 win over Indiana on Tuesday.