MIAMI -- The Los Angeles Lakers' bus arrived at AmericanAirlines Arena on Sunday afternoon and players popped out one by one, making their way from the parking dock to the visitor's locker room for the final test of their seven-game road trip against the world champion Miami Heat.
Every player but one, that is.
Kobe Bryant lingered on the bus for close to 15 minutes after all of his teammates had disembarked before he finally made his entrance to the arena with a slow, quiet saunter down the hallway.
Bryant was only delaying the inevitable.
Bryant's Lakers, revamped this offseason with the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard and so often compared to the Heat team that came together in similar big bang fashion a couple of summers ago, were about to find out what they might have known deep inside -- they're nowhere near the "super team" that Miami was and is.
They're not even close.
The latest reminder was a 107-97 loss to the Heat in a way that was a sad summation of just how laughable it is to associate this Lakers team with championship aspirations.
The Heat came together with three healthy stars – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- smack dab in the middle of their prime. The Lakers' supposed "Big 4" of Bryant, Nash, Howard and Pau Gasol is more like three stars holding on for dear life to the tail end of their dominance and another star who was in his prime but now looks like a shell of himself after undergoing offseason back surgery and is still having trouble fitting in. Even with Bryant's brilliance on offense, his defense isn't anywhere near what it was five years ago. Oh, and Nash missed seven weeks at the start of the season with a broken leg and Gasol is currently out 6-8 weeks with a right foot injury.
After the game, in which L.A. was outscored 25-16 over the final 8:47, Bryant stood in front of his locker for close to seven minutes, answering 10 questions about the state of his team and 11 questions asking just how good is James in some variation. James should be the topic of any conversation about winning the championship this season, not the Lakers.
"I think he's figured out his game in terms of what he wants it to be," Bryant said of James, who scored 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, extending his five-game shooting streak to 55-of-77 (71.4 percent).
The Lakers still haven't really figured anything out. Yes, they have won seven out of 10 games since that air-it-out meeting in Memphis, but it was the same old list of problems against Miami: too many turnovers (eight of their 15 miscues coming in the fourth quarter); not enough depth (the Heat's reserves led the Lakers' subs 18-12 in scoring) and still no rhythm with Howard, who finished with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting along with nine rebounds and three turnovers.
Howard was asked if he wants more touches, and he responded, "I don't want to talk about that."
Bryant was asked if they need more out of Howard, and he responded, "We could obviously get more. He's had games where he's had 25 points and 17 rebounds and so forth. We'd like to see that more consistently."
Nope, the only thing consistent about this Lakers team has been their inconsistency.
"We're making strides," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We can still do this. [Miami] set the bar and this is where we got to get to."
It's tough to call going 4-3 on their Grammy road trip "making strides," considering the team's new way of thinking it needs to win three out of every four games in order to make the postseason. Not to mention, Gasol went out with his torn plantar fascia on the trip.
After Laker losses, the question, "Do you still think you can win the championship?" has long been replaced by, "Do you still think you can make the playoffs?"
Even if the Lakers do the "this" that D'Antoni is referring to, what solace should they take in simply qualifying for the postseason? Would they really have any prayer of making it all the way to the NBA Finals and then potentially dethroning this Heat team that is now 5-1 against the Lakers since coming together in the summer of "The Decision"?
"Going 4-3 on a seven-game road trip is successful for losers," Metta World Peace said. If he did anywhere near as good a job shooting the ball as he did at being honest -- he's just 22-for-82 in his past seven games (26.8 percent) -- maybe they go 5-2 or 6-1. "[A 4-3 record is] successful for people who think of us as a losing team. It's successful for losing minds, not successful for winning minds."
Miami is the one with the winning minds these days.
"I love winning," Heat center Chris Bosh said. "I've been on teams where [winning one game] was the hardest thing in the world to do. It never gets old."
Sounds kind of like the Lakers, who are old and make their wins as difficult as they can be by either squandering early leads or needing to fight back from late deficits like the 20 points they spotted the moribund Charlotte Bobcats on Friday.
Nope, these Lakers really aren't anything like this Heat team.
"Rock bottom" for the Miami team that was assembled for 2010-11 was a 9-8 start to the season. Miami won 21 of its next 22 games after that to finish with 58 wins on the season and made it all the way to the Finals before losing to Dallas. It won the title a season later and is humming along with the best record in the East this season.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are saying they need to win their final two games before All-Star weekend so they can feel good about themselves and their 26-28 record heading into the break.
"We're still trying to find ourselves," Nash said. "It's hard. We had a lot of injuries. We haven't had a lot of time on the court together. We're not a fully formed team."
Bryant, who wants nothing more than to win a sixth championship before his career ends in a league that is now unequivocally James' kingdom, knew all that as he sat on the bus Sunday afternoon.
You can't blame him for not wanting the ride to end. No one would look forward to the reality check that was waiting for him when he stepped off the bus.