LOS ANGELES -- Midway through the second quarter of Oklahoma City's 116-101 drubbing of the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night, three very large men walked through the lower level of Staples Center with their heads on a swivel. Dressed in matching black and white letterman-style jackets, they were obviously bodyguards of some sort. And sure enough, as soon as a path had been cleared, Floyd Mayweather emerged and made his way to his courtside seat.
He was fashionably late, but presumably arriving just in time for the Lakers and Thunder to start getting down to business after an exciting first quarter that ended with the Lakers tying the score at 25-25 after closing on an 11-0 run.
It was just getting interesting when Money showed up. And then that was as good as it got. By halftime former Lakers great Magic Johnson was throwing in the towel for both this game and the Lakers' season.
"It's over for my Lakers," Johnson said at halftime of ESPN's broadcast of the game. "No playoffs, no nothing."
The Thunder was just so much better. So much stronger, so much deeper and more talented, it wasn't really a game. Frankly, it looked like one of Mayweather's lopsided fights. One opponent so completely dominating he can toy with the other for a few rounds before putting him out of his misery just when things start getting uncomfortable to watch.
For the Staples Center crowd it already has been a cringe-worthy season. Friday night, it just got weird. The place got loud as the Lakers played their way back into the game in the first quarter, but was basically quiet and stale ever after.
Then late in the fourth quarter, the Nicki Minaj hit "Starships" played through the rapidly emptying arena. The lyrics couldn't have been more fitting: "Starships were meant to fly."
This Lakers team was the mother of all starships coming into the season. Forget the three star-driven superteams in Boston, Miami and Oklahoma City. The Lakers had four future Hall of Famers in Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
But so far they've gone the way of the Hindenburg. And the longer this malaise drags on, the more you wonder if they were ever meant to fly.
"It is what it is," a glum Bryant said after the game. "When you find yourself in this situation, the best thing you can do is just try to get yourself out of it. It's as simple as that. I'm not the type to sit around and feel sorry for myself or feel sorry for what we're going through as a team. It is what it is. You've got to tighten up your belt and get to work."
Told that Johnson had basically counted the Lakers out for the season at halftime when it became obvious they'd fall to 15-21 with their sixth straight loss, Bryant shook his head.
"Of course. I'm sure he's not in the minority of thinking that way," Bryant said.
So has Bryant considered that this team might miss the playoffs?
"Nah, I'm way too stubborn," he said.
Still, even the most ardent of Lakers fans headed to the exits early, disgusted with how this season has gone.
That would be Jack Nicholson, whom ESPN's cameras captured waving, then giving a sly hand gesture as he digested this latest ignominious performance. A few minutes later, he got up and just walked out.
The Lakers, of course, don't have that luxury. It's still only January. There are no reset buttons. And things are going to get harder before they get easier. As you've probably heard, the Lakers basically have to win 70 percent of their final 46 games to get close to the number of wins that usually gets the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
As executive vice president Jim Buss said in an interview with ESPNLA 710 on Thursday, if the Lakers were to do what was necessary to make the playoffs, it would mean they'd figured things out and gotten very hot along the way.
Buss' comments were intended to take some of the pressure off a team that has played tighter than Nicholson's lips are usually pursed during games.
Of course he's frustrated. Of course missing the playoffs would be inexcusable for a group this talented and well compensated. But when you have players quoting everyone from Batman to Gandhi in an effort to find a way out of this mess, maybe it's time to let a little air out of the balloon.
Here's just a sampling of Bryant's tweets over the last few weeks:
• "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will" Gandhi On to the next one. Keep focus."
• Thoughts of self doubt Am I done? Is this how my career will end?? I REFUSE to give in to these thoughts. #strongwill#countonchallenges
• "The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are"- John Pierpont
A few weeks ago Howard was quoting a line from one of the Batman movies that borrowed a bit from the famous Winston Churchill quote:
"The darkest hour is the one before dawn."
But every day that goes by without things turning adds distance to make up on the other side. And pretty soon, they're going to run out of room.
"I told the team that the biggest thing is that our season starts Sunday," coach Mike D'Antoni said, referring to the Lakers' home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. "We put ourselves in this ditch and we are the only ones that can get ourselves out."
Not many Lakers fans stayed to watch the bitter end of Friday's game. There was little reason to, outside of seeing the final score and postgame handshakes.
But Mayweather was one of them. He'd arrived fashionably late, expecting to see a good fight. He walked away, much like the Lakers, not getting his money's worth.