MILWAUKEE -- About the only consistency the Los Angeles Lakers have been able to claim through the first 20 games of this uneven, lockout-shortened season is the inability to put up a consistent effort on the road.
The latest Lakers lapse came in a 100-89 loss in Milwaukee on Saturday to a Bucks team that had a sub-.500 record, was playing on the second night of a back-to-back and missing two of its top three leading scorers in Andrew Bogut (ankle) and Stephen Jackson (suspension).
The Lakers are now 1-7 away from Staples Center, negating their solid 10-2 mark at home with the worst road record in the Western Conference. Even New Orleans and Sacramento, who have 10 wins combined between them, have been able to muster two wins apiece on the road.
"We got to figure out how we can play, no matter whose gym we're in, how we can play the right way," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "That's with a little bit of sense of urgency defensively, we got to be physical and defend without fouling and then we got to know our coverages. In the first half, we had so many breakdowns on the defensive end of the floor and we had multiple guys going, 'My fault, my fault, my fault.' Well, you get five, six, seven guys saying, 'My fault,' at different times and you're not doing what you're supposed to do on that end of the floor."
The Lakers lost their first six games on the road by an average of 10 points per game. Against Milwaukee, they found themselves already down by 10 just two minutes into the second quarter.
Despite the Lakers starting two 7-footers in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol against the Bucks' 6-10 center Drew Gooden and 6-8 power forward Luc Mbah a Moute, the Lakers were outscored 44-42 in the paint for the game and seemed to be the ones being pushed around instead of the other way around.
"They got into us more than we got into them," Gasol said.
"Not playing strong enough, not playing physical enough. Certainly not tonight. They were much more physical than we were," Kobe Bryant said.
"We played on our heels and it was tough for us to finish around the basket. I don't care who was on the floor or who had the ball for us, they just made it a physical grind-it-out type of game and we did not fight back," Brown said.
It doesn't get any easier, with seven of the next eight games on the road, starting Sunday in Minnesota.
Brown has some built-in leeway as a first-year head coach, with even the most rabid Lakers fans realizing on some level that Rome wasn't built in a day. He only had a two-week training camp and two preseason games to implement his system on offense and defense before the Lakers' feet were thrown in the fire on Christmas Day, when in a normal season he'd have five weeks and eight practice games. He has been correct to point out to the press that he's been even more limited with preparation time since the season began; his first full-contact practice since training camp closed came earlier this week, with a full month of trying to teach by telling instead of showing in between.
Brown's specialty is defense. His plan was to keep the Lakers in every game while he and his players both mastered the steep learning curve they had to get through to click on offense -- him learning the players' strength to tailor what plays he runs and his players learning his plays so they could show him just how strong they can be in his system.
The problem is that as much as defense is about X's and O's, the root of a successful defense comes down to the most basic of requirements -- energy and effort.
Brown's players bought into the plan -- Bryant even called the Lakers a "blue-collar team" on Saturday -- but after 20 games in 35 days, the Lakers are already running out of gas. They can overcome in L.A. and feed off the home-crowd cheers to get their bodies moving even when their legs are spent, but on the road they've just looked lifeless.
"It's bringing that energy every night. That's the toughest thing," Bryant said. "You got to bring that effort every single night. It's much easier to do at home because you can use the energy from the crowd to play that way. When you come on the road you have to find some way to muster up that energy."
It makes you assess what they can consistently rely on these days. It's certainly not the offense -- their 89 points Saturday marked their 13th straight game without reaching 100 points, setting the franchise record for offensive futility in the shot-clock era.
Bryant has been as good as he has ever been, especially factoring in what he's accomplishing while playing with a torn ligament in his right wrist, but his 27 points, nine rebounds and eight rebounds against the Bucks was another testament to the fact he can't do it alone.
Gasol backed up his breakthrough 23 points against the Clippers with just 12 against Milwaukee, going 6-for-18 from the field. Bynum finished with 15, but finished with 10 shots after taking five in the first quarter, leading him to say, "In the second half I didn't get very many touches." The Lakers also again were cold from 3-point range also, going 6-for-19 (31.6 percent).
As for the defense, it has started to slip. Against Indiana, Brown blasted the team for blowing a 13-point lead because it was "going through the motions." Against Milwaukee, perhaps even more damning, Brown said his players were "making up coverages on the fly," suggesting that it wasn't just effort that was lacking on D, but there was also a lack of understanding of what they're supposed to be doing out there with almost a third of the season already in the books.
"I hope that we say, 'Hey, enough is enough,' and we get a stop when we're supposed to get stops," Brown said.
OK, there's one more thing that's consistent about this Lakers team other than its road struggles: Brown is sticking to his plan to rely on defense to win, no matter what evidence has started to pop up that putting together a Plan B might be in order.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.