Lakers-Pelicans Preview

(AP) - Kobe Bryant's farewell tour hits its last four stops in the next week, and fans are relishing their final chances to watch his graceful game even with the Los Angeles Lakers finishing up the worst season in franchise history.

The Lakers open a three-game road trip Friday night against the New Orleans Pelicans before Bryant's grand finale at home Wednesday against Utah.

After claiming he didn't want a farewell tour when he retired, Bryant changed his mind in late November, turning the Lakers' season into a moveable tribute to a polarizing, globally respected athlete.

''It's something that he deserves, that he's earned, and that we all want to do,'' said Lakers coach Byron Scott, Bryant's teammate in his rookie season. ''I don't think anybody can question K.B.'s place in the game, and it's only natural that people want to honor him. We all do, too.''

Bryant, the third-leading scorer in NBA history, has been cheered in cities that had greeted him with seething hatred for the better part of two decades.

''I can feel it, and it feels pretty damn awesome,'' Bryant said. ''It makes going through the years of losing, and not leaving, makes it all worthwhile. Staying here and taking the good with the bad, and the fans embracing and understanding that, that we ride together, that's a love that you can't break, man.''

Meanwhile, the Lakers are wrapping up a historically miserable three-year stretch. They've set the 16-time champion franchise's record for single-season losses in three consecutive years, culminating in Wednesday's 62nd defeat - 91-81 to the Clippers.

''It doesn't matter,'' Bryant said. ''It's hard for people to understand this, but losing is losing, and there aren't different degrees of losing. You either win a championship, or you're in the same boat we're in. It's very black and white to me. So whether you set a franchise record for losses or you get to the playoffs and lose in the Western Conference finals, those are the same damn thing to me.''

That's the view of an 18-time All-Star with five NBA championship rings. The youngsters and modestly accomplished veterans don't have Bryant's perspective, and it's too soon to tell how their supporting role on Bryant's tour has affected rookie D'Angelo Russell or second-year pros Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle.

Russell succinctly summed up the Lakers' strategy lately: ''Get Kobe the ball.''

''Especially now that we're winding down, there is even more of a focus on K.B.'s last game,'' Scott said. ''I think all that attention and all that focus is probably affecting (the younger Lakers) a little bit, because they see it just like everybody else. They want him to do well. They want to try to give him the ball as much as possible when he's on the floor. It's a lot to digest. I know the focus is sometimes not there, because there's so much stuff going on.''

Bryant is last in the NBA among qualifying players with a 35.3 field-goal percentage. But the Lakers know what the public wants, and what they owe to Bryant after two decades of service.

Bryant has been reflective and vocally grateful in recent weeks - and unlike his fans, the NBA's career leader in missed shots insists he doesn't care if he gets the ball every time.

''I will defer, and I'll just come out and play the game,'' Bryant said. ''This is what I'm here for, one more time, is to just play the game.''

Bryant had 27 points in his last visit to New Orleans, a 99-96 win Feb. 4 that improved the Lakers to 2-0 in the season series.

The injury-plagued Pelicans (29-49) enter this matchup trying to avoid a third straight loss after falling 104-97 at Boston on Wednesday. They played without their five top scorers and had nine active players.

''We played hard and we competed like crazy,'' coach Alvin Gentry said. ''Just couldn't seem to make a couple plays at the end that would get us over the hump.''

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