Celtics playing like the better team now

LOS ANGELES -- It was almost easier losing to Miami on Christmas Day.

Easier to forgive, because the rivalry with Miami is still being created.

Easier to forget, because the Los Angeles Lakers walked away feeling like they never really showed up.

Kobe Bryant may have had a lot more public venom after the loss to the Heat, but no matter how much poise or patience the Lakers seemed to project after Sunday's 109-96 loss to the Boston Celtics, this one is going to be harder for everyone to swallow.

"I think guys are just upset," Bryant said. "They should be. We're not playing very well against these top teams. We need to elevate our level and we need to get better if we're going to defend our throne."

That refrain is not new around the Lakers' locker room. This team has a chronic history of complacency and inconsistency. But in years past, there has been a counterargument: a few signature wins to point to for comfort after tough losses.

This season the Lakers are still searching for one of those. It's nearly February and the Oklahoma City Thunder are the best team Los Angeles has beaten.

The Lakers are just 18-7 at home, having already equaled their loss total at home from all of last season.

What made Sunday's loss to the Celtics worse was that complacency and consistency weren't the problem.

The Lakers just got beat by what is, at this moment, a better team.

"Phil doesn't yell much, but he gives you that disappointed look, which is sometimes worse than being yelled at," Lakers forward Luke Walton said. "He doesn't need to yell. We're a veteran team. We know how disappointing this loss was.

"All he said," Walton said, "was, 'We'll see you tomorrow. We're going to have to work.'"

That part is irrefutable.

The Lakers have won 33 games this season, but beyond the first two weeks, they haven't looked like the best team in the NBA.

The Spurs, Celtics, Mavericks and Heat have all held that pole position for longer than the Lakers. Worse, the Lakers haven't beaten any of those teams yet.

In Sunday's loss to the Celtics, they looked disjointed and flustered.

The Celtics' defense in the second half seemed to completely disrupt L.A.'s flow offensively. The Lakers degenerated into a one-on-one team and finished with a season-low 10 assists.

"[The offense] wasn't run very well tonight. The ball didn't change sides of the floor as we spoke about during the pregame," Pau Gasol said.

Asked what could be inferred from their staggeringly low assist total, Gasol chose his words carefully.

"It's not a good thing when you finish with 10 assists," he said. "When the assists are 20-plus, it's always a good sign because it tells you that you're sharing the ball, you're finding the open man, and the open man is hitting the shots.

"That didn't happen tonight."

The Celtics had 34 assists -- Rajon Rondo had 16 by himself, with 15 coming in the second half, when the Celtics moved the ball unselfishly and got the Lakers chasing early.

Boston played like more of a team.

In a way, it would've been easier if the Lakers could simply say they showed up to Staples Center feeling overconfident. They could've walked out feeling that more effort or passion would've made the difference.

But on Sunday, both teams played hard. The Celtics simply played better.

Afterward, the Lakers found ways of coping with the loss. They spoke of getting back to work, of the need for patience and perseverance during a long season.

They reminded themselves that the playoffs are still three months away, that there's still time to get this right.

"It's not the playoffs yet, is it?" Jackson asked with a hint of defiance. "We're still playing regular-season games, right?

"We'll get there in time."

But beneath those proclamations of confidence, bubbles of urgency began to rise.

"It's definitely a work in progress," Walton said. "But it's getting later and later in the season. At some point the work in progress has to become an identity, has to become to where other teams come in and they're afraid to play us, where they're not looking forward to it.

"Right now that's not happening. We're losing at home, we're losing to all the other elite teams in the league and that's not like us."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.