DENVER -- When the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks on Christmas Day, it wasn't just an accomplishment because they got the W to run their streak to five and their record back to .500, but because of they way they did it.
When the Lakers needed to lock in late in the game, they were at their best on the defensive end, holding the high-scoring Knicks to just 16 fourth-quarter points. It was the same formula the Lakers used in a come-from-behind win against Charlotte (16 fourth-quarter points for the Bobcats) a few games back. When things got dire, the Lakers lifted themselves with their D.
That all went out the window Wednesday in the Lakers' 126-114 loss to the Denver Nuggets as L.A. allowed the most points it has all season and got back to giving up a poison-pill quarter (Denver scored 39 in the third), which was the same problem that plagued the Lakers in losses to Houston, Oklahoma City and New York prior to their win streak.
"Our pick-and-roll defense wasn't great tonight," said Dwight Howard who had to watch most of the second half from the locker room after being ejected for a flagrant-2 foul on Kenneth Faried in the third quarter. "The help wasn't there. The 'help the helper' wasn’t there. It just has to be better overall."
Not having the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year on the court didn't help the Lakers' chances on paper, but it's not as though Howard was being his dominant self before he was tossed anyway.
Howard had just seven rebounds in 27 minutes as the Nuggets owned the boards with a 48-38 rebounding edge that led to 25 second-chance points.
"You can't play a team on the road and time after time you stop them and they get the rebound and put it back in," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, who pointed out that L.A. held Denver to just 43 percent shooting in the first half, a stat nullified by the Nuggets' 17 second-chance points in the first two quarters. "You can't do it."
Howard was so ineffective that when D'Antoni was asked what the center's ejection meant to the Lakers' chances of winning, he replied bluntly: "Not a whole lot."
The team's frustration in its defense was manifested in the first quarter when Howard and Steve Nash openly stared at each other with their palms up and argued over who missed an assignment that led to an uncontested dunk for JaVale McGee. It was reminiscent of Howard and Kobe Bryant going at it a few weeks back in New Orleans.
"I think every single guard and big goes through a pick-and-roll could squabble over it every time the other team scores," Nash said, diplomatically. "I think that's more just frustration because neither of us wanted him to score. That kind of stuff should happen. You should be pissed when the other team scores. That's healthy."
That may be the case, but was it healthy when Howard placed the blame on Nash after the game when he was asked about the dispute?
"He was just explaining what happened, what he thought happened. Everybody makes mistakes," Howard said. "He just went for the steal and mistimed it, and McGee went behind him and dunked the ball."
Nash wasn't the only one at whom Howard pointed a finger, also calling for more emphasis to be placed on defense during D'Antoni's practices.
"Guys got to be in the right spots and they have to be taught it and it has to be something that you practice on so guys can understand," Howard said, visibly frustrated as he spoke. "They have to go through it. You just can't talk about defense or talk about where to go. You actually have to show guys where to go."
While Nash spoke of the need for desperation this week and Howard obviously was ticked off by the loss, Bryant took a more measured approach.
"Tonight it just seemed like we were a step slow," Bryant said after extending his 30-point streak to 10 straight games by dropping 40 points for the fourth time this season, about the only bright spot on Wednesday. "It seemed like we were a little stuck in the mud. We played old and they played with a lot of energy, a lot of youth, got up and down and it just seemed like we were in a lower gear all night."
But he refused to go further than that. When it was suggested to Bryant that considering the circumstances -- second night of a back-to-back, playing a strong home team that had something to prove after a bad loss a night earlier to the Los Angeles Clippers, dealing with the high altitude -- it could lead to what Phil Jackson would refer to as a "scheduled loss," Bryant replied, "That's a good call."
When asked if the team was lacking a defensive identity, Bryant continued to try to not to overreact. "We still got it," he said. "Tonight was just a tough one."
There's still room for patience in this topsy-turvy Lakers season. But defense comes down to drawing a line in the sand and doing whatever it takes to stop the other team from scoring. It remains to be seen if this Lakers group is ready to draw a line in the sand and demand of themselves a better defensive effort from here on out.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.