WASHINGTON — The pattern is beginning to repeat itself: Lakers take big lead, Lakers lose big lead.
Friday night was no different, other than the Lakers lost large leads twice, the latest wrinkle to a team that keeps winning but also keeps spinning in place whenever the score starts tilting their direction.
The Lakers defeated the Washington Wizards, 106-104, though it actually felt like another loss on a trip that wasn't supposed to be this challenging.
The Lakers led by 16 in the first quarter, but it was chopped to two a few minutes before halftime. The Lakers worked it back up to 20 in the third quarter, and still led by 19 with 7:27 left to play, but they escaped a loss only after Caron Butler missed a three-point attempt as time expired at Verizon Center.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson did not like what he saw, so he picked up a marker and started writing on the white board in the locker room.
When he was done, Dallas, New Orleans, Phoenix, Indiana, Philadelphia and Washington were arranged in a neat vertical line, representing the teams that had come back from double-digit deficits in the second half against the Lakers.
Derek Fisher, a veteran of five NBA Finals and 13 seasons, took it a step further.
He approached the board and wrote "Boston Finals," followed by the number 24, a reference to the 24-point lead the Lakers blew in a Game 4 loss to the Celtics in last season's championship round.
On one hand, the Lakers improved to 16-2.
On the other hand, nobody seemed excited about it.
"No," said Kobe Bryant, who had 23 points on five-for-17 shooting. "I think we can play much better. Games like this just don't sit right with you because you're not moving in the right direction. It's one of those things where we just kind of fall into a false sense of security. That's something we can't afford to do."
They almost fell into another loss against a sub-.500 team from the Eastern Conference. The Wizards are 3-14.
Long after the Lakers' fourth-quarter lead dissipated, Bryant made only one of two free throws with 14.3 seconds to play, opening up the possibility of another Indiana-type upset.
But Butler missed from beyond the arc with Trevor Ariza guarding him.
Afterward, Jackson said he was "conflicted" about the game. The Lakers added another road win but certainly didn't look sharp doing it.
Then he talked about the need for change with the second unit -- not so much in personnel, but in playing time.
"I think it was poor coaching, that's what it was tonight," he said. "Putting too much trust and faith in a younger group, the second unit, that perhaps can't hold it on the road. They can't withstand the fury or the tensity of a fourth-quarter game, so I'm going to have to change it up a little bit, I think."
In the near term, Jackson said he might re-insert the starters earlier in the fourth quarter, perhaps with eight minutes left instead of five or six.
Bryant and Pau Gasol (17 points, 10 rebounds) re-entered Friday's game with 5:41 to play and the lead already cut to nine.
They didn't help much.
In the final two minutes, Bryant missed a 20-footer, Gasol missed a 23-footer, then Bryant missed a 19-footer before his bank shot gave the Lakers a 105-102 lead.
It ended up being a victory but only in the loosest form of the definition.