After any number of false starts the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are as back as a ninth-place team can be. They've pushed their record over .500 for the first time all season by winning five straight, four of those against playoff teams. It's been a perils of Pauline act, climbing from the tracks time after time as the train roared near. "It worried all of us," Kobe Bryant said Friday, "because we were just plain playing bad, even while Shaquille [O'Neal] and I were playing well. I don't remember an exact night or who we played, but I remember thinking, 'Man, we might be in trouble.' "

Even now, the Lakers have no time for injuries, no room for error or slump, which gives the league a ready-made and compelling story line going into the final one-third of the season. And it will certainly keep the pressure on O'Neal and Bryant, since their supporting cast won't be bolstered by any trades. Every night can't be like Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, when Bryant scored 46 points and O'Neal scored 33 in a wildly entertaining and theatrical performance worthy of Broadway.

Energized even more than usual by the recent birth of his first child, a healthy baby daughter, Bryant has scored 201 points in his last five games, numbers Wilt would happily brag about. The obvious question is how long can Bryant and Shaq be expected to keep this up, and whether they can exert this kind of extreme effort in the regular season and still have enough to carry the load in the playoffs. "This," Bryant said, "is why you work out so hard. Look, we knew it would be tough. Shaquille was out at the start of the year, and people wanted me to put all the pressure on myself to carry the team. But the fact is that the team is built around Shaquille. We had to struggle the way we did. But my job was to make sure we didn't lose the intensity or lose sight of the seriousness of the situation."

Coaches talk all the time about great players, particularly non-centers needing a mean streak. Some of Bryant's teammates didn't take too kindly when he called them out publicly, but in doing so he may have been developing the personality necessary to whip a team. "I think they've grown to understand it a lot more," he said. "I drive a hard bargain. Is it difficult to do it? No, it's difficult not to. Maybe a couple of years ago there might have been a feeling of, 'Oh, he's too young [still only 24] to be telling me this.' But it's not like there's a choice here."

Shaq's rounding into midseason form and Bryant is riding herd. Take, for example, the start of the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks Thursday night. With a huge lead, Phil Jackson put Slava Medvedenko in for Shaq. The substitution coincided with the Knicks climbing back into the game. "Slava came in," Bryant said, "and it was obvious he just wasn't ready to play. He got some great looks on shots he always hits and he just wasn't ready. During a timeout, I had to get in his face. I told him, 'If you're not ready to play then sit down. You've got a big role to fill, even if it's only two or three minutes some nights. Phil's putting you in for a purpose.' Against certain teams, certain players can really provide an advantage, even if it's with limited minutes."

That kind of player management is essential on a Jackson-coached team, and it was absolutely necessary, no matter how many feelings might have been hurt along the way, that Bryant assert himself in that role. He couldn't possibly have played any better than he did the first half. Nobody in the NBA has been close to Bryant, night in and night out. And to think that two years ago this weekend, some of us wondered aloud whether he'd be too aloof, too distant and self-absorbed to take on such responsibility.

It sounds silly to suggest that Bryant is somehow better than last year, or the year before, but he is. What committed player isn't getting better at 24? By any reasonable measure, he's more assertive, a more effective leader, and a thicker hide as a result of the criticism over such a lousy start. Who would you take over an evolving Bryant with what appears to be (again) the same old dominant Shaq, and the Lakers might just hit a championship stride by early April. "Of course, it's an important thing that Shaq is looking so good," Bryant said. "There's a big difference between the way he played when he came back and the way he's playing now. It's not just coming back from [toe] surgery, either. Shaquille has knees that ache. And I don't think people realize the severity of his injuries."

It was only a year ago, after winning the All-Star Game MVP award in his home town of Philly, that Bryant was booed, stupidly, by fans upset that he played hardball against the 76ers in the Finals the year before. Upset then, Bryant said Friday, "They booed Santa Claus and all kinds of other good people. . . . I still enjoy going home. When I'm there hanging out, it's all love I'm getting from people."

The Lakers are in a heightened state of awareness now. They know Western Conference rivals, such as Sacramento and Dallas, have added pieces each of the last three years. They know, even with this recent surge, they'll probably have to go win on the road in each series. They know the second half is going to be difficult.

"I'm not ready to say the ship is righted, because I don't really know what that means in this case," Bryant said. "But I'm ready to say we're playing really well right now, and ready to continue next week."

Kobe Bryant, defended by Knicks' Latrell Sprewell: "I'm not ready to say the ship is righted, because I don't really know what that means in this case."