(Reuters) - Faster starts and a much improved defense are sorely needed by the Los Angeles Lakers if the 16-time NBA champions are to resurrect a bitterly disappointing campaign, according to their head coach Mike D'Antoni.
Lakers fans had lofty expectations for 2012-13 after Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were joined by fellow All-Stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the off-season but the once mighty franchise has failed to gel, slipping to a 15-17 record.
An ageing line-up has not been helped by a spate of injuries and three different head coaches, though the return of veteran point guard Nash from a leg fracture for the last six games certainly gave the team a much needed lift.
"We just have to get better starts," D'Antoni told reporters after Lakers team practice at their El Segundo training facility on Saturday. "Whatever we're doing isn't working right now.
"And defensively, we need to work harder. We lose our energy on defense sometimes because the offense sputters."
The Lakers lost a tense battle with their city rival Clippers 107-102 on Friday after clawing back from a 19-point deficit early in the fourth quarter at the Staples Center.
In their previous game they also fell short, going down 103-99 on their home court against the struggling Philadelphia 76ers on New Year's Day after trailing by 11 points in the first quarter.
"We competed," D'Antoni said of his team's spirited revival against the Clippers when Bryant finished with a game-high 38 points. "We came back and we had a shot at the end to win.
"We're always shooting under pressure, down eight or 10, and the ball has to go in. Then you're down 15 or 17, and it's ‘Oh man'. We're struggling with that a little bit.
"So there are spots where we're really good and there are spots where we seem to dissolve a little bit as a team. We have to find guys that can make shots and we have to get back to that."
The Lakers have very little time to get back as they host the Denver Nuggets on Sunday and their three-time defensive player of the year Howard has billed himself a "game-day decision".
Center Howard put up 21 points and 15 rebounds for the Lakers against the Clippers on Friday but hurt his shoulder in a tangle with Caron Butler and woke up on Saturday in some pain.
Howard skipped team practice on Saturday and received treatment from the Lakers' training staff but D'Antoni was not too worried, saying the center's chances of playing on Sunday were "good."
Bench player Jordan Hill, who sprained his right ankle against the Clippers, was listed as "probable" for Sunday's game against the Nuggets.
The Lakers, who have lost three of their last four games, have gone 10-12 since D'Antoni took over from interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)