EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Lakers dropped a close one, again, after another night of misses by Kobe Bryant, another frigid third quarter and more questioning of referees' performance.
They looked tired and thin, particularly after halftime, and eventually fell to the New Jersey Nets, 92-89, as questions about Bryant's stamina continued to be bandied about.
He said he was fine, but his coach said his legs looked fatigued, and the numbers seemed to support the latter -- 11 assists, but only 24 points on nine-for-24 shooting, along with seven turnovers and an airballed, last-breath, three-point attempt Friday night at Continental Airlines Arena.
After the final play was thwarted and the Laker record fell to 34-33, Luke Walton best summed up what was going on with the franchise.
"If we don't start winning these games, we're going to find ourselves out of the playoffs again," he said.
The Lakers haven't done that in consecutive seasons since 1975 and 1976, but there they were Friday, faltering in another late-game situation, not long after being outscored in another third quarter, 26-16.
It's a fly-by-night outfit right now, with Chris Mihm and Devean George out because of injuries, a patchwork team best symbolized by the belt Walton slipped through his jeans after the game.
It was actually the power cord from a DVD player. He forgot to bring his belt.
The Lakers, held together by spit, glue, DVD power cords and Bryant for most of the season, aren't even getting much of Bryant in recent games. He has not made more than half his shots in the last six games, shooting 38.1% in them.
Laker Coach Phil Jackson called Bryant's Friday night a strain and a struggle.
"His legs weren't live like he wanted them to be," he said, before trying to pick up the optimism a bit. "He'll get that back. That comes and goes."
Bryant said he was fine before the game. He insisted there was no fatigue factor, even though he has now passed the 40-minute mark in 12 of the last 13 games.
"I feel pretty good," he said. "[Thursday] night, I jumped in a tub full of ice, [almost] froze myself. It was a day of recuperation."
He went on to say he felt better now than he did a year ago, when he was coming back from a severely sprained ankle and was battling painful swelling in the arch of his foot for most of the season.
"Much, much better," he said. "Last year I had plantar fasciitis. Man that's tough. You don't ever really shake that. There was a constant battle to shake that and then I had the sprained ankle as well. It was tough. I'd rather be here, where I am now."
The Lakers aren't quite sure where they're headed, their porous defense causing more problems at critical points.
With the Nets ahead, 90-89, Vince Carter blew past Walton on a drive that started at the top of the key. He missed a running jump shot, but Nenad Kristic was there to tip in the miss with 13.1 seconds to play.
"We're an inconsistent team as far as defensively," Lamar Odom said. "Our toughness is even inconsistent. They had lot of dead-on layups.
"Sometimes you've got to send a message when guys come in there. I don't think we did that. A couple of drives today started at the top of the key or in the corner and the guy actually laid the ball in the rim, like it's eighth grade. They got dead-to-right layups and the game basically ends with a put-back."
Even when the Lakers did play defense, they felt they were punished.
With 34 seconds to play, Net guard Jason Kidd had trouble inbounding the ball from inside the half-court line. Jackson thought he saw referee Michael Smith count five seconds, if not six, before allowing Kidd to call timeout.
"When he pumps his arms six times and then he doesn't call [anything].... I know it's tough to count over five for some of these guys, but that was ridiculous," Jackson said. "That was just impossible."
The Lakers then matched their defensive woes with a poor last offensive push.
The Nets even knew what play the Lakers were going to call off the inbounds, a play that, for now, will be called "What the Heck?"
Odom handed it off to Brian Cook, and the ball eventually worked its way to Bryant, who was blanketed by Carter and had to settle for an awkward 32-foot three-point attempt with two seconds to play.
Net Coach Lawrence Frank knew the exact name of the play.
"They've been running that play," he said. "It's a Red Holzman play, and they execute it extremely well."
Not on Friday, when it mattered most.