LOS ANGELES -- A Los Angeles Lakers season that started with a loss to the LA Clippers and then skyrocketed to a first-place perch in the Western Conference standings for weeks has hit a bit of a snag heading into the Christmas Day rematch with their Staples Center cohabitants.
Sunday's 128-104 loss to the Denver Nuggets was the Lakers' third in a row -- the only time they've had a losing streak of any kind this season. At 24-6, the Lakers' record is still considerably better than the Clippers' 22-10 mark, but just six days ago they were 24-3.
As much as a win Wednesday in the marquee game on the NBA's holiday schedule would seemingly set the Lakers' success back on course, there was already big-picture perspective coming from players in the purple and gold with the Clippers matchup just days away.
"The championship is won in June -- it's not won on Christmas," Dwight Howard said after the Nuggets, owners of the No. 2 record in the West, trounced the Lakers with a 73-51 second half Sunday. "This is not an ego test for us. We're not trying to see who's better right now. We want to make sure come playoff time that we're the best team going into the playoffs and at the end of the playoffs that we're the best team in the world. That's the goal. That should be our mindset.
"We can't allow emotions to get in the way of what we're trying to accomplish. I think we were super emotional in the first game, and it showed. So we can't play with our emotions. We've got to play with our will and our purpose. And if we do that, we should win the game."
It's a similar take on the game that LeBron James shared with ESPN two weeks ago when asked to preview the matchup.
"It's two fierce teams, for sure. It's two competitive teams. Two competitive coaching staffs. So, you can expect a lot of competition. And may the best team that night win. You don't know how the ball is going to go in, you don't know what's going to happen in terms of who is going to play well and things of that nature, but both teams want to win," James said. "But it's not the end of a season. It doesn't mark what the team is going to be for the remainder of the season on a Christmas Day game."
James missed his first game of the season Sunday while dealing with a thoracic muscle strain -- a pull in the rib cage area -- as well as a nagging groin issue, sources told ESPN's Brian Windhorst. He is listed as day-to-day by the Lakers with the Christmas game on the horizon. However, a source close to James told ESPN he expected the star to be in the lineup.
While James' presence would certainly buoy this Lakers group, Anthony Davis pointed to a more pressing need than the four-time MVP: team defense.
"With or without [James], we sucked defensively," Davis said after the Nuggets game. "We lost our defensive edge. We're not guarding no more. We're not rebounding. Getting back cut. Our attention to detail on the defensive end and awareness has slipped the last couple games, and we're not aggressive on that end anymore. That goes back to, even, back to the road trip. We were winning games, but we had a lot of slippage on the defensive end. We got to be able to correct that."
To Davis' point, the only team that had a worse defensive rating than L.A. in the past week was the Phoenix Suns, and no team had a worse defensive rebounding percentage. It came to a head against Denver with the Lakers giving up a season high in points and tying a season high for points in the paint allowed (62).
"We haven't been guarding," said Davis, who tweaked his right knee but was able to finish the game. "That's everybody, even myself. A lot of blow-bys. Just been lackadaisical on the defensive end. We're very talented on the offensive end, but the way we're going to win games is defensively. We can't bank on outscoring everyone. We got to continue to defend, and once we get the edge back, we'll be fine."
For as stellar of a season that it has been for the Lakers with James' name being tossed around in the MVP conversation, Davis making a case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award and the team looking like a real championship contender, they enter Wednesday with a backdrop of uncertainty.
"We never expected to lose three in a row," Davis said. "We didn't expect to lose two in a row. But ... it's not going to get any easier. We got a tough one coming up in two days, so we got to get back to the gym and work on our defense, and make sure we'll be ready to go on Christmas Day."