EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. -- Kobe Bryant loves a challenge -- always has, always will.
Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers have overcome every obstacle in their way since Phil Jackson was hired to coach them in 1999.
The three-time defending NBA champions have never had a challenge like this.
Not only do they trail the San Antonio Spurs 2-0 in their second-round playoff series, the Lakers are missing two key players -- forwards Rick Fox and Devean George.
"It makes it pretty tough," Bryant acknowledged with a thin smile yesterday.
Their absence was glaring in every way in San Antonio's 114-95 victory in Game 2 on Wednesday.
And it's decimated a bench that was already thin.
"Yeah, it is (tough)," said 37-year-old Brian Shaw, who started Wednesday night for the first time since April 8, 2001. "If it wasn't tough, it wouldn't be as satisfying if we get over the hump."
Fox tore a tendon in his left foot in the Lakers' first-round series against Minnesota and will undergo surgery next week.
That made a starter out of George, but he sprained his left ankle in San Antonio's series-opening 87-82 victory Monday night.
An MRI yesterday confirmed George had what team spokesperson John Black called a severe sprain and nothing more. Jackson said it's a virtual certainty George won't play tonight in Game 3 at Staples Center.
The Spurs called off practice yesterday, opting to rest before flying to Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4.
"I like our position," Spurs star Tim Duncan said.
"They are the world champions. I don't think they respect us. I don't think they're worried at all. That's nothing, to be up 2-0. We need to show that we can win on the road now."