This is when the Lakers should be cleaning up, not scraping their egos up off the floor.
During a stretch in which they will play 17 of their first 21 games at home, they should be resting Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter because they have put the game out of reach, not because he aggravated a week-old groin strain during the first quarter and had no reason to risk making it worse.
The Lakers' 101-91 loss to Houston on Sunday in front of an unhappy crowd at Staples Center was their second in a row and third this season. That, in itself, is not a problem.
The problem is they followed a putrid, franchise-worst second half at Denver on Friday with a ragged first half Sunday -- and let that bleed into a rancid third quarter in which Aaron Brooks had 15 points and the Lakers as a team had 19. After scoring only 23 points in the second half at Denver on Friday, the Lakers were outscored, 49-37, in the second half Sunday.
It wasn't pretty.
"If you look at the games, it's clear these are not games we should be winning," Andrew Bynum said. "We're going out and playing subpar basketball for this team."
In a season that began with the goal of challenging the 72-10 standard set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the Lakers are looking at their transition defense and finding it wanting and shaking their heads at being outrebounded, 60-38, by a team that lacked Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.
Asked whether he was surprised the Lakers have three losses in their first 10 games, Bryant kept his face impassive.
"I'm mortified," he said, his words dripping in sarcasm.
And the way they have lost these last two . . .
"It terrifies me," he said in the same tone.
"You know we're going to get better," said Bryant, who wouldn't blame the sore groin for his five-for-20 shooting. "We know what's at stake. We'll figure our way through this."
They are well behind the Bulls' pace in that 72-win season. That team was 10-1, lost its 11th game and then took off on a 13-game winning streak. The Bulls didn't lose for the third time until their 26th game. They followed that with an 18-game win streak and were 41-3 before losing two straight.
That's 31-1 over a 32-game stretch.
No one may ever match that 72-win season. It won't be these Lakers, not at this rate.
"You have two nights in a row like that . . . we play a lot of games, and those guys came out fighting," Ron Artest said of Houston. "We've got 82 games to get ready for the playoffs."
The 70-plus win goal came from Bryant and has taken root in the Lakers' minds, a goal to keep them interested while they slog through the long season.
"We think about it maybe individually, maybe not collectively," Lamar Odom said. "We got pretty beat up early in the year and to accomplish things like that sometimes you have to have an injury-free year. Even some guys that are playing have been beat up early this year.
"We still think we can do it but I think it's individual players. Collectively we try to take it game by game."
The current Lakers haven't been as lucky in avoiding injuries as they were last season. The only regular to miss significant time last season was Andrew Bynum, who lost 32 games to a knee injury.
Trevor Ariza, who signed with Houston as a free agent last summer and was warmly welcomed back Sunday, played all 82 games for the Lakers last season. So did Bryant and Derek Fisher. Odom played 78 and Pau Gasol played 81.
Gasol missed his 10th game Sunday, though he might return later this week. Bynum has missed two games.
"Everybody's been beat up," Odom said.
Seventy seems an impossible dream, though Odom insisted the Lakers are capable of sustaining the excellence they'd need to get there.
"We think we can maintain that type of level. We're a mentally tough team," he said. "And that's why we've had success."
Focusing in the second half was another reason they have had success. That was glaringly missing in their last two games.
"I think that we have to look at what we're doing," Coach Phil Jackson said, adding they must work on getting more second-chance shots and examine where they are getting their shots.
Consistency and defensive diligence should be high on their list -- ahead of pursuing a 70-win season. Only if they do the first will the second have even a remote chance of happening.