HOUSTON -- It seems that every string of success the Los Angeles Lakers have been able to put together this season has been followed by a treacherous pothole lurking around the next corner.
The latest ditch the Lakers plowed into was in Houston on Tuesday. L.A. built a 17-point lead against the Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry-less Houston Rockets and went on to lose 107-104 thanks to a 17-7 run by the home team to close the game.
The maddening inconsistency the Lakers showed through 48 minutes perfectly summed up the dilemma they've faced in trying to build some momentum this season. Time is running out. Houston was Game No. 46 out of the Lakers' 66-game schedule.
The Rockets loss was preceded by an equally perplexing home loss on Sunday to the Al Jefferson-less Utah Jazz in a game where L.A. led by double digits early on and was playing at Staples Center where they had a sterling 19-2 record. Rather than run away with the victory, the Lakers stumbled through 24 turnovers and Kobe Bryant bumbled through a 3-for-20 shooting night, and they fell victim to the pothole again.
Of course, the Jazz loss was preceded by five straight wins for the Lakers as well as the passing of the trade deadline when the team was able to keep its core big three of Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum together while adding the speeder Ramon Sessions to compliment them.
It was their time to roll. And yet they regressed.
"It's the same old song," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. Win five in a row in early January? Drop four of the next five. Win five out of six bookending the All-Star break? Lose a back-to-back in Detroit and Washington.
"I think we just need to be a little more disciplined and stick to the things that work and have worked for us when we are playing well," said Gasol, who had 21 points on 10-for-14 shooting against Houston. "We need to make sure we're consistent and focused every game no matter what happened in the game prior to it. I think that could help, so we can't be too confident or too down on ourselves when we win or when we lose."
Gasol's speech sounded like a line right out of Phil Jackson's manual. And he's right to save the fret in March when he's ultimately playing for June, but do that enough times and it leaks into how a team approaches a single game.
"There's no sense of urgency," Brown said. "That, to me, is concerning."
Brown has been remarkably Zen-like himself this season, preaching patience when the Lakers' offense look jumbled after a truncated training camp and barely batting an eyelash when L.A. came up lame on the road, but even he has his limits. If Brown didn't shave his head you get the feeling he'd want to pull his hair out while pondering how the Lakers lost on Tuesday.
"More than anything else, I'm trying to contemplate what we're going to do on the defensive end of the floor," Brown said, letting his irritation be known. "We score 104 points in a regulation game, we shoot 51 percent from the field. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? And we can't play good enough defense and box out and come up with rebounds to stop them from winning the game? I mean, I don't know. I need to watch the tape, but it's not good."
In the Laker' past 11 games they may have scored 100 or more points six times, but they gave up 100 or more seven times. Contrast that to how the Lakers scored 100 or more points only six times and gave up 100 or more points seven times through the first 35 games of the season and you get L.A.'s defense declining just as fast as its offense is improving.
"It's been one or the other," said Bryant, who scored a game-high 29 points against the Rockets but went just 10-for-27 in doing so. "It's been our offense [that] has been good, and then defensively, we slip. When our defense was great, offensively we slipped. We got to find that stretch here where we meet that good mix and have that good balance of the two and we'll be all right."
Much the same, the Lakers' offense needs to find a balance between Bryant carrying the load and Gasol and Bynum getting involved. The Lakers led by 15, 40-25, at the end of the first quarter against the Rockets. Gasol had 12 points on eight shots, Bynum had eight points on six shots and Bryant had nine points on five shots along with two assists. In the next three quarters, Bryant went 7-for-22 with just two more assists while Bynum and Gasol combined to make as many field goals (seven) in half as many attempts (11) and the Rockets outscored the Lakers by 18.
And so, the Lakers will try to pull themselves out of that ditch again Wednesday in Dallas.
"I'm concerned but I'm confident that we can get it fixed," Bryant said. "We've responded to challenges all year. In a way, it's good to go through something like this."
It feels like they've already been through it before, however. And whatever was fixed has managed to become broken again.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.