So what did you expect? That’s what it really comes down to with these Lakers, isn’t it? So when they go on an eight-game road trip and struggle, like the Lakers just did, it shouldn’t come as any great surprise there are a couple of minor incidents on the bench – Lamar Odom shouting at Sasha Vujacic, and Brian Cook getting into it with Phil Jackson and Brian Shaw. The Lakers are understandably frustrated by their current play, almost victims of their own raised expectations and flirting with an identity crisis. They threaten to become a head case only a NASA psychologist could approve of. They’ve now lost three consecutive games at home. They’ve lost 10 of their past 14 overall. They’ve lost a good feel for who they are. “Sometimes there’s an All-Star malaise, a point in the season when things happen like this,” Jackson said. “We’ll just have to come out through the other end of it and keep playing. “We’ve had some close wins earlier in the season. We’ll have some close ones at the end.” The Lakers enter a key stretch after this weekend’s All-Star Game. The final third of the season will determine whether they come together and again become the team they believe they are, or limp into the postseason poised for another first-round fade. This will prove to be a season-defining time. “I think we’ve done well considering our injuries,” Kobe Bryant said. “Our starting frontcourt was out for a while and we had to put a bunch of new pieces in there. “We had Luke (Walton) go down, who’s an integral part of this team. Considering the injuries that we’ve had, I think we’ve done an excellent job.” The Lakers have certainly had their share of injuries. Center Chris Mihm has been out all season. Center Kwame Brown has played in less than half their games and will be out at least another month. Odom missed 21 games. Walton has missed the past 10 games and won’t return until after the break. Healthy Lakers were getting as rare as the congressman who hasn’t declared himself a presidential candidate. When the Lakers were robust, and playing mostly at home, they were a team that could beat anyone, that allowed itself to dream big, to believe a corner had been turned. Kobe is certain he understands the difference between the team that started the season so impressively and the one now reeling. “I think we were healthy,” he said. “When we had everybody out there on the floor, we played extremely well because our team is built on chemistry. People who have that experience of playing together, understanding each other, because we’ve been together for awhile. “Now you take some of those pieces out, you put new pieces in, you have to build that chemistry and that rhythm again.” Injuries, however, are an easy and dangerous excuse. Every team experiences its share. There are other, current issues with these Lakers that are unmistakable. Odom has not played at the same level since returning from his knee injury. Teams are doubling Kobe and daring Smush Parker to beat them. Walton’s play had slipped before he sprained his ankle. The young players who had stepped up so impressively during the injury wave – Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Ronny Turiaf – have started to look like the long season is wearing them down. Bynum in particular has lacked his previous energy. “Without a doubt,” Jackson said. “He’s a 19-year-old kid. I mean, Jordan Farmar, who has gone through some longer UCLA seasons, had also hit the wall. But they’re starting to come back.” Yet the Lakers lack a consistent defensive effort. Guards allowing penetration, opposing post players meeting little resistance inside. Teams that can’t count on their defense struggle to win close games, to close out teams they should beat. And that has been a particular Lakers problem of late. When the Lakers need to, they’ve proved they can raise their game and beat a Dallas or Phoenix or San Antonio. But they just as easily slink to the level of a Charlotte or Milwaukee & or New York. “We’re not that experienced a team yet,” Jackson said. “This team rises emotionally to front-level teams because they know they have to play at a certain level. “A lot of our younger players don’t know they have to bring a certain sense of desperation to every game.” On their 3-6 trip, the Lakers looked like an edgy team, frustrated with the continued struggles – Cook unhappy over his shrunken playing time, Odom probably with his own play. This is officially the low point of the season for the Lakers. Kobe said before Tuesday’s game they needed to win to stop the bleeding. After the loss he said they needed, “sutures.” The Lakers expect better, of course. Now the next eight weeks will determine how realistic their expectations are. Steve Dilbeck’s column appears in the Daily News four times a week. [email protected] (818) 713-3607 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Did you think they’d show modest improvement over last year’s 45-win season, maybe push their way into the second round of the playoffs? Or were you expecting a jump so dramatic that they’d suddenly join the NBA’s elite? The team that started the season 15-6 & or has gone 15-17 since? Few probably expected the Lakers to return home Tuesday and continue their slide by falling 107-106 to the Knicks for their first four-game losing streak this season. These current Lakers are actually of the mediocre variety, which, given their fast start, has them feeling a bit chippy. It has to be remembered that the impressive start coincided with 15 of their first 20 games being played at home. Still, they beat some top teams along the way, and their confidence swelled and expectations rose. It seems a long time ago.