Phil Jackson smells smoke

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Phil Jackson sat through four quarters of the worst basketball his Los Angeles Lakers have played all season and emerged from the visitor's locker room with just 24 words to sum up what he saw.

"I have one thing to say: I am very disappointed in our performance tonight. We are embarrassed about what we did and that's it," Jackson said after the Lakers were laughed off the court, 109-89, by the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday.

It didn't feel like the Zen Master.

It felt more like the lawyer who knows he's defending a guilty client. The one in a shiny suit who keeps his remarks minimal as he makes his way through the media pack waiting for him on the steps of the courthouse to not give them any fodder.

A writer in the arena Monday night who has covered the team since the Kobe-Shaq three-peat days said he couldn't remember more than three or four times that Jackson's made so short a postgame statement before retreating from reporters.

It's a move that breaks from Jackson's norm so strongly that it reeks of alarm.

Yes, the Lakers looked terrible. Yes, they fell down by 28 points to a team that's still only at 24 wins in the middle of February. Yes, they allowed Charlotte to shoot 51.2 percent from the field while they only made 43.8 percent of their shots. And yes, such as in Sunday's loss to Orlando, they were outscored in every one of the four quarters and shot an equally anemic 3-for-19 on 3-pointers after going 2-for-16 from downtown against the Magic.

But the Lakers have hit rock bottom against the Bobcats before. It's nothing new to see Los Angeles fail against Charlotte, it's happened eight of the past 10 times the two teams played. As a matter of fact, it happened in Charlotte in similar fashion last season. In that game, the Lakers shot 36.3 percent from the field, had 20 turnovers and lost by 15.

Here's what Jackson said after the game: "Fatigue makes cowards of us all."

He quoted Vince Lombardi, blaming the loss on tough travel conditions, cleaned his hands and moved on to the next question.

That's just his way. He's coached his teams to the NBA Finals 13 times in 19 seasons at the helm of the Chicago Bulls and now the Lakers, winning 11 titles. He doesn't see games as one of 82 on the schedule, but as individual opportunities to advance some aspect of the Lakers' game that will help the team come June.

Jackson has preached patience with this current Lakers team all season. And believe me, there have been countless times he could have buried them this season. Remember the 19-point home loss to Milwaukee that was followed by two more losses to the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs by 15 points or more? Or how about the 19-point home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies? Or the time the lowly Sacramento Kings came into Staples Center and stole the Lakers' crown for a night? Or even the first game against the Boston Celtics that ended up looking nothing like a Finals rematch because of overcoming a 13-point deficit like they did in Game 7, they simply lost by 13.

"Is it the playoffs yet?" Jackson asked after the Boston loss. "No. We're still playing regular-season games. We'll get there in time."

Maybe they will.

But maybe Jackson was right to break the glass and press the alarm when he smells smoke as a cautionary measure to prevent the Lakers' title hopes from going down in a blazing inferno.

As much as the team felt like it was coming together during its perfect 4-0 start to this road trip, it felt like a bunch of disjointed individuals after the Bobcats loss.

One captain, Kobe Bryant, chose not to speak to reporters as he made his way to the team bus before the locker room was open to the media.

The other captain, Derek Fisher, in one breath said "sometimes the schedule gets the best of you," pointing to the four games the Lakers have played in the past five days and in the next said, "There's no excuses in this game, it's a man's game and we have to tip our hat to the Bobcats."

Andrew Bynum made sure he wasn't thrown under the bus with the rest of his lackluster teammates and even complained about playing time, something he never does.

"I was out there playing hard, man," Bynum said. "The second half, I didn't really get involved in the game. I got like six minutes."

Pau Gasol sang the familiar song about not properly respecting their opponent that all the Lakers seem to know the words to, but nobody can seem to draw the message from.

"You're going to get nights that you're going to get humbled by other teams that on that particular night they play better, they just want it more," Gasol said. "This was one of those nights as a team."

Ron Artest, well, didn't wait for the first question to be asked before he could find a camera to peddle his teammate's eau du toilette.

"You know what this is?" Artest said holding up a fancy glass bottle full of a gold-colored liquid. "It's Lamar's cologne. 'Unbreakable. ... For anybody that wants to be unbreakable, buy it!'"

And then, somewhat under his breath, "I just did a quick commercial."

Maybe all this team really needs is a quick commercial break over the NBA All-Star weekend to get its focus back. And maybe Jackson knows his team knows that so he decided to pull the alarm Monday night.

Because if a loss to the Bobcats is the smoke, a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday would most certainly be the fire.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.