Byline: Howard Beck Staff Writer
MINNEAPOLIS - Kobe Bryant tucked his Afro under a ski hat, pulled on a heavy leather coat, directed his eyes straight ahead and departed briskly from the visitors locker room at Target Center on Wednesday, leaving reporters' probing questions unanswered.
It was the least resistance Bryant saw all night, the only time he moved from Point A to Point B without running into a wall.
And as for those pesky inquiries about the Lakers' flagging fortunes, well, no one seems to have those answers anyway.
``Don't have much to say, man,'' Bryant said as he walked away. ``We stunk it up.''
And with that, he was gone. Just as quickly as the Lakers' optimism and their hopes for a winning road trip.
A 96-83 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves left the Lakers with a 1-2 record on this Shaq-less trip. They return home today more depressed than when they left, with fewer healthy bodies and with a record (28-16) that includes one more loss than the Lakers had all last season.
Shaquille O'Neal missed his third consecutive game because of a sore foot. A sudden knee ailment took out Horace Grant before tipoff. Bryant kept playing through his mosaic of injuries, and no one could be blamed for not trying hard.
But no amount of aggression and hustle could save the Lakers from another costly setback.
``We don't know how to win without Shaq,'' Lakers forward Robert Horry said. ``We only won, what, one game without him? You can't substitute for Shaq. He's a big presence in there and no matter what happens, we need to hope that he gets well soon.''
Bryant came up with just 24 points on 6-for-17 shooting. Mark Madsen's career-high 15 points looked nice, but also stood as an indictment of how little anyone else did: The rookie with limited offensive skills outscored all his veteran teammates.
The Lakers shot just 39 percent and scored 18 points below their season average.
Minnesota dominated the paint and the second-chance points and extended its winning streak to a franchise-record eight games, while snapping its losing streak to the Lakers at seven games.
``You've got to take advantage of them not having their superstar. You don't have any sympathy in this league,'' the Timberwolves' Terrell Brandon said.
The Lakers are just 2-3 in games without O'Neal this season. They finished January with a 6-6 record, the first non-winning month since going 6-6 in February 1997.
``I think that the thing that we need to learn is, we have to play as a team and we need to use guys the way they know how to play,'' Lakers guard Ron Harper said. ``And we've got to find guys shots and we have to hit shots, too. We have to go out and just play. I think we played hard. The last two games, I think our team has played harder. That's encouraging.''
This game was lost in the first quarter, when the Lakers faced a 10-point deficit. They played the Wolves to a virtual draw in the final three quarters but never got closer than 8 points in the second half.
Bryant, still hampered by a sore right shoulder, tried replicating his 47-point, attack-the-basket effort of the night before. But the Wolves were quick to cut off the lanes, and Bryant missed nine consecutive shots during one stretch. He was blocked three times, twice by Kevin Garnett.
``He went a little bit too hard in the first half and he got himself in jeopardy,'' coach Phil Jackson said. ``And I thought he was much better in the second half, moving the ball and eventually when he did try to go, they were prepared.''
The Lakers' other four starters combined for just 20 points and, although the Lakers equaled the Wolves in rebounding, they clearly missed the defense of O'Neal and Grant, their two most physical big men.
``That wasn't the actual game,'' Jackson said. ``Obviously, we miss Shaq and Horace . . . but we really didn't shoot the ball very well, we didn't take care of the basketball well, we didn't protect fast-break points. . . .
``The big picture is, come April 19, when you start the playoffs, is the big picture. We're just getting ourselves through the season right now, hopefully go into that period of time with our guys all intact and playing good basketball.''
Photo: (color) Lakers guard Tyronn Lue (10) pursues T'wolves' Terrell Brandon.
Jim Mone/Associated Press