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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Like a jigsaw puzzle where a new piece has been inserted that does not seem to fit, the Los Angeles Lakers have been decidedly disjointed since Kobe Bryant's long-awaited return from injury.
After delivering a surprise 10-9 start to the season with a makeshift lineup amid assorted injury problems, the stumbling Lakers have gone 0-3 since their star player's comeback against the Toronto Raptors on December 8.
A smooth return was never likely for the rusty Bryant, who was sidelined since mid-April after a torn left Achilles' tendon that required surgery, but his presence in the Lakers' lineup appears to have jolted the youthful synergy established earlier this season.
Shooting guard Bryant, a 15-time All-Star and five-time NBA champion, is averaging 11 points and shooting only 38.5 percent in his first three games.
The 35-year-old scored just four points on two-for-six shooting while recording 13 assists and seven turnovers in his latest outing, against the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Friday when the Lakers were pummeled 122-97.
"We will get better," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters after his team took on Oklahoma City without all three of their injured point guards - Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar.
"Check in on us in a couple of weeks and see how we're doing."
Though injuries have clearly not helped the Lakers' cause, the 'Bryant factor' has been the hottest topic on the agenda for the media when they have access to D'Antoni, either pre-game or post-game.
"I know it's tough," D'Antoni said of his team's predicament after Bryant pulled in just one rebound in 23 minutes on Friday before being benched for the entire fourth quarter. "Sure it is. That's the way it is.
"We can feel sorry for ourselves or we'll go out and do a bang-up job. And he (Bryant) will. He'll rise to the challenge."
Bryant, who made just two of nine shots against the Raptors six days ago on his return from injury, felt his on-court play had steadily improved over his first three games.
"I'm moving a lot better," said the Lakers' all-time leading scorer who has a career average of 25.5 points per game. "I'll get to a point soon where I'll be able to play a little bit more and maybe be out there on the court around 30-35 minutes.
"It's tough, but physically it's (his body) not ready for that yet. We'll just have to hold the fort down in that time and stay within striking distance."
The Lakers will need to hold the fort down for some time as Blake (torn ligament in right elbow) is expected to be sidelined for at least six weeks while Nash (nerve damage in back) and Farmar (torn hamstring) are out.
Los Angeles, 10-12 this season, sat 13th in the 15-team Western Conference, before their game against the Bobcats in Charlotte later on Saturday.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry