MINNEAPOLIS — Another day deeper into a season by all appearances crumbling, another defeat behind them, the Lakers pushed onward, no longer imposing their game upon others, but having it routinely thrust upon them.
They lost, 96-80, to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night at Target Center, which did not fill up at the lure of the three-time defending champions. Then, they haven't looked much like it since June, when they stood on a platform at mid-court in New Jersey, shiny gold trophies held above their heads, no end to their dominance in sight.
If they don't yet get it, others are beginning to form opinions, and gaining the courage to speak them.
"I can't really worry about them," Minnesota guard Kendall Gill said. "But it seems in all my days playing against them, the people around Shaq and Kobe played much better in the past. I don't know why they aren't stepping up. Like I said the other day, maybe they're just bored with winning and they're trying to lose as many games as they can to give themselves a challenge. They're too good of a team to have their record the way it is."
They are 10-16 and their public is beginning to wonder if this is how their championship run will end -- with hardly a fight, with Phil Jackson shouting at veteran players who won't make eye contact, at the end of 18-point quarters, unchallenged jump shots, luxury buses waiting to whisk them to the next disappointment.
With half of the last quarter still to play, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were summoned to the bench, stepping across Jackson on their way, another game out of hand, a season approaching the same dreary destination. They had not been closer than 10 points since the middle of the third quarter.
"I didn't like the way they were playing," Jackson said of the starters he cleared.
They're not competing. They're being overrun by lesser players with lesser plans, by a team Tuesday night without starters Wally Szczerbiak and Terrell Brandon, and then some of them slink off, apparently unwilling to trust their words, their anger, publicly.
"I can't pinpoint what I would say is the malady," Jackson said later, then pinpointed poor choices, poor energy, poor shooting and poor defense, among the issues.
He added, "Kobe looked lackluster in the first half," to which Bryant responded that he'd simply stayed within Jackson's beloved triangle, trusted his teammates, watched them miss. If management is to make personnel decisions in the coming weeks, it appears its task is becoming more clear by the game.
"My role is black and white," Bryant said. "I'm the facilitator. I score when the opportunity presents itself. But I try to stay within the confines of the offense. Especially now."
Minnesota forward Kevin Garnett made 10 of 14 shots and scored 23 points. Five of his teammates scored in double figures as the Timberwolves, largely unchallenged on the perimeter, made 51.3% of their field-goal attempts, a season high against the Lakers.
O'Neal had 17 points and nine rebounds in 37 minutes. Bryant scored 15 points in 39 minutes. The Lakers shot 39.2% from the floor, the seventh time this season they've been below 40%. Last season, in 82 games, they were worse than 40% five times.
So, the Lakers lost for the 11th time in 13 road games. One of the victories was in Los Angeles, at Staples Center, against the Clippers, with plenty of fans cheering for them. Today, they'll practice in New Jersey and Thursday night play the Nets.
"I have no clue, man," Robert Horry said with a sigh. "It seems like nothing's going our way this year."
Jackson's first timeout, his first angry one, came 22 seconds into the second quarter, or a second-and-a-half after Anthony Peeler's wide-open three-pointer pushed Minnesota's lead to 29-18.
By then, the Timberwolves had made three of four three-pointers, the Lakers had missed four of five, the Timberwolves were sensing the Lakers were beatable again, the Lakers had here-we-go-again thoughts.
"We used to not be that way," Horry said. "But everything's going so against us, maybe it's starting to affect us."
Three-pointers definitely are affecting them. So it was that the Lakers, within 18-17 with 3:29 left in the first quarter, trailed, 45-25, not 12 minutes later. By halftime, it was 54-38, the Lakers giving up at least 50 for the 10th time in their last 12 games. All of them with O'Neal. All since they decided it was time to get serious, that their four-peat dream was at stake, that they had to play defense and play hard.
"I think everybody's still confident," Horry said. "Just, like I said, nothing's going our way."