HOUSTON -- There were signs in the arena before the Los Angeles Lakers' 109-99 loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday that the Lakers hadn't quite reached rock bottom enough yet to be able to start climbing back up to the top.
Because it was a back-to-back, the team canceled its afternoon shootaround so the players could sleep in after arriving from Memphis in the wee hours Wednesday morning but then held a rushed meeting to go over the night's game plan about an hour and 45 minutes before tipoff.
Luke Walton and assistant coach Chuck Person were already out on the court going through their pregame routine when a locker room attendant had to come out of the tunnel and beckon them back inside for the meeting.
What did they go over?
"I just went through what we would normally go through in a practice or in a film session in short order in trying to get guys on board about various things that we want to get accomplished out there that we're not doing defensively and offensively," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said. "There's probably 30 or 35 things that happen in the course of the game that we want to track and say that these are the corrections we'd like to make and like to get things done the right way here."
I'm not saying the loss to a Yao Ming- and Aaron Brooks-less Rockets squad with a 5-12 record entering the game was because of information overload. I'm saying that if the Lakers have 35 areas they have to improve on coming off a Tuesday loss, they're not going to go 35-for-35 on the test Wednesday having crammed for it less than two hours before tipoff.
Jackson even seemed to sense that there were a couple of steps back left for his team to take before it could leap forward.
"There are good basketball teams in this league and people expect us to win a lot, and we're going to win a lot I hope, but sometimes teams are playing better than you are out there and you just have to suck it up and move forward and hope you improve the next time," he said.
And they did make some improvements from the last game. They played with a greater sense of purpose in the third quarter. They protected the ball better and cut down on turnovers. The shot distribution was better, with two bench players reaching double-digit scoring.
But new problems arose. Pau Gasol's left hamstring tightened up and limited him to an ineffective eight points and nine rebounds. The problems the Lakers had stopping the pick-and-roll were replaced with the problems they had shutting down the perimeter, as the Rockets went 10-for-22 from deep. The once-juggernaut of an offense that averaged 112.5 points through the first 14 games of the year scored under 100 for the fifth straight game and shot just 13-for-39 (33 percent) in the second half, a glaring statistic that was the only thing scribbled on a white board in the postgame locker room.
"We need another finger to put in the dike, is what we need," Jackson said after the loss. "We've run out of fingers."
The Lakers have been able to fly under the radar through the first five weeks of the season because the public can't seem to get enough of the bright lights and loud noises emanating from the circus down in South Beach. Once again, Kobe & Pals will get an assist from LeBron James & Co. on Thursday because the basketball world will be turning into the King's return to Cleveland rather than rewinding tape from the Lakers' losses.
The blanket of anonymity should afford the team some time to look inward.
"Whatever we're going through is probably good for us," said Lamar Odom after scoring a season-high 25 points while Gasol and Kobe Bryant struggled with their shots. "It's good to be humbled and more down to earth and understand that we can lose games if we don't play basketball the right way."
The general assessment of the team by its players remained that the team had a lot of work to do on both offense and defense, leading to a chicken-or-the-egg type of situation about which is more damning when it's lousy.
"We're slow. We're slow. We're slow. We're slow on rotations," Bryant said, picking on the defense and maybe subconsciously mentioning the word once for every consecutive loss.
But Bryant also knows that building a championship team is a slow process. The journey from September to June is a long one.
Kobe's advice on this December night in Houston for his 13-6 team -- a record that ranks them fourth in the West and just sixth in the NBA overall -- was the same as it was on a November night in Memphis less than 24 hours before:
"Just win the next one."
The Lakers have 63 "next ones" left in the regular season and then will have four best-of-seven playoff series to apply the same mentality to before they get a chance to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the third straight June.
They won it all last season, after all, in the very last "next one" of the NBA calendar year -- Game 7 of the Finals against Boston -- and that long process of not reaching their zenith until the very last second didn't cheapen the championship; it only sweetened it.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten.