LOS ANGELES -- If this were November, or even December, the Los Angeles Lakers could afford to spin the positive signs and the tad of momentum from the ultimately futile fourth-quarter comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night.
Only it's January, and they can't afford losses of any kind. They're bankrupt. Whatever time, goodwill and good intentions they had in their accounts are flushed.
They are 15-17, and the initial feedback on this make-or-break stretch of five games is that they're broken. They don't have the luxury of taking comfort in their fourth-quarter rally that cut a 19-point deficit down to two. Not when their mission is to overcome the two games that separate them from the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoff race.
They couldn't win this game even though Clippers didn't have Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford, who succumbed to a foot injury he suffered in Denver and tried to play through for a game and a half. Chris Paul played more minutes than he has been and did more scoring than he has all season (notching his first 30-point game), while still managing to dish 11 assists.
The Lakers seem incapable of getting every part moving at once. They got the type of game they anticipated from Dwight Howard when they traded for him last summer, with him making his presence felt on both ends of the floor. They got the usual 30-plus-points outing from Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash had 10 assists.
But their defense allowed 61 points in the first half and 87 points through three quarters. Pau Gasol looked only vaguely connected with the offense and couldn't do anything with the ball when he got it.
Gasol's dismal night was the most glaring problem. The Lakers were minus-20 when he was on the court. He made only 1 of 6 shots, couldn't keep opponents away from the backboards or beat them to loose balls and would have spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench if Howard had not fouled out with a minute left.
Gasol is trapped playing for a coach who doesn't believe in dumping the ball into the low post, and he is further displaced by playing with another big man who gets first dibs on the territory Gasol would prefer to occupy.
"It's been difficult for me to figure out how to get there and operate from there," Gasol said. "I'll try to play the game as well as I can."
The Lakers have awaited Nash's return from an injury he suffered in the second game of the season to see how the star-studded lineup they assembled would work out.
With Nash back for the past six games, we're beginning to get enough data to see where this experiment is headed. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant, Gasol, Howard and Nash have played 146 minutes together and have outscored opponents 325-311, or plus-14.
In 55 minutes with that group minus Gasol, the Lakers have outscored opponents 121-100 (plus-21). With Gasol in and Howard out, they have been outscored 134-123 (minus-11) in 53 minutes.
Gasol does have two key players championing his cause in Nash and Bryant.
"Six months ago, [Gasol] was unbelievable in the Olympics," Nash said. "That's still in there somewhere."
"We need to go through him a lot more," Bryant said. "He needs touches on the elbow, touches on the post."
We know that won't happen at the expense of Bryant's shot total. Bryant is like a congressman who doesn't want to cut the federal deficit without reducing spending on his district. While Mike D'Antoni's credo is the ball will find energy, Bryant believes that shots come to those who demand them and impose their will on the offense.
Still, Bryant sounds more sympathetic to Gasol's plight than he has been to Howard's struggles throughout the season.
Bryant doesn't appear to have much patience with Howard. After one defensive lapse, Nash tried to offer Howard a little encouragement. Bryant simply turned and started heading downcourt.
It's not that Bryant has hopped in the escape pod, abandoned the spaceship and gone off to his own planet. He still tried to tell Jordan Hill which defensive angles to take. He found Nash for a couple of 3-pointers. He exerted more energy on the defensive end than he has all season, guarding Chris Paul for most of the night and jumping the passing lanes to come up with five steals.
It's just that he and Howard are far from the devastating combo he and Shaquille O'Neal formed earlier in Kobe's career. Howard had more moments than usual, with 21 points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots. He finally felt like a factor.
But rather than bludgeoning teams the way Shaq and Kobe used to, rather than winning the mental battle before the opening tip, the Lakers spend quarter after quarter, night after night, playing from behind. When it was suggested to Bryant that the Lakers no longer have an intimidation factor, he complied.
"I think that's fairly safe to say," Bryant said. "Because we're a below-.500 team."
That's the only way to assess the Lakers. It's no longer about them progressing or learning or coming together. It's about them losing more than they win.