HOUSTON (AP) — Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers turned their attention from bad basketball and trade talk to more somber matters on Monday.

The death of Jerry Buss, their longtime owner, was a blow for a franchise that was so often chasing an NBA championship under his leadership. With Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, and finally Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers won 10 titles since Buss became the owner in 1979.

The Bryant-Gasol-Dwight Howard-Steve Nash combination hasn't been working nearly as well.

The Lakers's record is 25-29, good for only 10th place in the Western Conference, miles behind the Los Angeles Clippers in their division and their own building, and out of the playoff race. Gasol and Nash have been hurt and Howard has been unhappy, leading to speculation he could be dealt before Thursday's trade deadline even though the Lakers have said otherwise.

Yet Bryant spoke confidently of a turnaround after the weekend's All-Star game, just hours before Buss' death at 80.

"I think we've been playing pretty well coming into the break," Bryant said. "We laid a couple of eggs there against the Celtics and the Clippers, but all in all we've been playing pretty well, much better than we have been. We just have to continue to improve and we'll do much better in the second half."

It starts on Tuesday, with the Lakers looking to get back on track, the Miami Heat in command in the East and LeBron James in command of everyone.

Bryant blocked James' shots twice in the final minutes of the West's 143-138 victory over the East on Sunday in the All-Star game. It was a rare failure for James, who has been sensational all season and whose Heat have hit their stride. Miami ran off seven straight victories going into the break and started to build a comfortable lead in the conference.

"We just want to play our game," James said. "Not waste an opportunity when we get on the floor. Play as a team and if we do that, we'll be fine."

The Heat are only 13-11 on the road, and All-Star forward Chris Bosh said Miami was only a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, believing the Heat still have to put together a string of road victories to prove they are really in championship form.

"Just the fact that we had room to improve, we can play better on the road and we're still first in the East, that means a lot to us and that means we can get a lot better," Bosh said.

New York is the closest challenger in the standings, while Indiana and Chicago have already beaten Miami this season and could become stronger with Danny Granger soon returning to the Pacers and perhaps Derrick Rose coming back to the Bulls at some point.

San Antonio, with the league's best record, Oklahoma City and the Clippers are the teams in best position to face the Heat if they reach their third straight finals.

Chris Paul will be a free agent in July, yet the Clippers don't believe he will leave. They have built a team that's been as good as any when healthy, a deep group led by Paul, the MVP of the All-Star game.

"We're like brothers," Paul said. "I love our team and what we're doing and we're going to keep moving forward."

So, says Bryant, will the Lakers. An NBA Finals duel like the one he had with James at the All-Star game seems out of reach this season. Yet the way Bryant defended shows he's ready for the challenge.

"My switch never went off. It was on all weekend," he said. "It was good to see the guys but at the same time there was an undercurrent that went on during the first half of the season that I won't let go. Come Wednesday, we have to be ready to go."

 

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