LOS ANGELES -- It's never easy with this team, is it?
It was an important night for the Los Angeles Lakers, welcoming two starters back in the lineup in Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and facing a team buried way below .500 after losing to a team just like that Monday in Phoenix.
And boy, did they blow it.
L.A. dropped its second straight game to a team that has no prayer of making the playoffs and instead of using a soft spot in the schedule to build momentum, finds itself back in a bit of a tailspin with just 12 games remaining in the regular season.
Gasol's night started off great, as he grabbed a defensive rebound on the Washington Wizards' first possession and picked up a no-look assist to Metta World Peace on the Lakers' first possession, but he finished with just four points on 2-for-10 shooting and eight rebounds.
That's OK. Gasol had missed close to seven weeks of action and 20 games, so rust was expected.
Turns out Gasol was a minor part of the story.
Former Laker Trevor Ariza ended up having a much bigger impact on the game.
Ariza scored 19 of his game-high 25 points after halftime, setting a new career high by hitting seven 3-pointers as he was able to help Washington come all the way back from an early 18-point deficit to briefly take a two-point lead in the fourth.
While the Wizards came into the game with a 24-43 record, they were actually 19-15 this season with their best player, John Wall, in the lineup, so the fact that they gave L.A. a challenge shouldn't have been a surprise.
Bryant didn't have his normal late-game magic working, as he missed an open 8-foot jumper to tie it in the final minute, and had one more chance at it with a desperation heave at the buzzer on a fadeaway 3, which clanked short off the rim.
How it happened: L.A. controlled the game at the start, leading by 16 at the end of the first quarter and never letting up. Washington was playing its fifth game in seven days and its third road game in a row, while the Lakers on came in on three days' rest -- and it showed. Washington made its run on the backs of Ariza and John Wall (24 points, 16 assists) and finished the upset.
What it means: Mike D'Antoni's pregame remarks were pretty prescient.
"We got to win, first of all," D'Antoni said. "We can’t experiment and we can’t play around with it too much. We got to win every game and that’s how it’s going to be played, and hopefully we get better every game because they have some improvement they can do -- a lot of improvement because they haven’t played together. A lot of talent is on the floor; let’s see if we can get it together."
Getting Gasol and Bryant back is certainly a boost to the Lakers' chances down the stretch, but L.A. has to stick to what it did to get back in the playoff hunt in the first place. It can't get too cute.
Hits: Dwight Howard had 20 points and 15 rebounds.
Jodie Meeks scored 16 points off the bench, including eight in the fourth quarter.
Bryant added another momentum-changing dunk to his season-long aerial display, sending home a reverse jam with 7:04 remaining in the fourth quarter to put L.A. up by 3 when its offense was struggling. It ended up being a moot point, though.
Misses: Seeing World Peace take it upon himself to go 1-on-5 and pick up an offensive foul in a crucial possession when he has playmakers like Bryant and Steve Nash on his team is a crime against basketball.
While Bryant's distribution game was strong (11 assists), his defensive game wasn't. Bryant was routinely late to close out on open shooters (most notably Garrett Temple, who scored 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting) and L.A. in turn let Washington hang around longer than it should have in the third quarter when the Lakers could have put it away.
Antawn Jamison was brilliant in the first half, scoring 11 points on 5-for-9 shooting to go with seven rebounds, but he suffered a sprained right wrist in the third quarter which ended his night early. He will receive X-rays on it after the game.
Stat of the game: The Lakers had 10 assists on 13 buckets in the first quarter, but finished with 27 on 39 baskets for the game as the ball started to stick.
What's next: For the first time in a long time, the Lakers do not have games on either Saturday or Sunday, as they'll have the weekend to get ready for their final multi-game road trip of the season -- four games through Golden State, Minnesota, Milwaukee and Sacramento beginning Monday. The Warriors game will be doubly important as L.A. is still in the hunt to catch Golden State for the No. 6 seed in the West, and it will also set the tone for the trip.