The pattern remained the same, almost predictably, the Lakers playing against a team without its best player and somehow turning a blowout opportunity into a mess.
The Denver Nuggets rolled into town with an unhealthy Carmelo Anthony, who happened to be tied for the NBA's scoring lead, but still stunned the Lakers, 126-113, Friday at Staples Center.
The Lakers played about as much defense as the Western Conference All-Stars will play next weekend, and it cost them.
Chauncey Billups had 39 points and nine three-pointers, both career highs, easily overshadowing Kobe Bryant's 33 points, and creating a new problem spot for the Lakers -- an inability to beat the best of the best in the NBA.
To name a few, they're 0-2 against Cleveland, 0-2 against Denver and 0-1 against San Antonio. Had they not beaten Boston on Sunday . . .
Fast-forward to Friday, when the Nuggets shot an uncanny 15 for 22 from three-point range (68.2%), and 57.1% overall.
Billups' 21 points in the third quarter were two shy of a Lakers opponent record for points in a quarter, set by Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain in 1966.
Billups also came close to another Lakers opponent record, falling one shy of the 10 three-pointers Peja Stojakovic hit for New Orleans in a November 2007 game against the Lakers.
The conference standings will show the Lakers 3 1/2 games ahead of the Nuggets, and continual glances at Denver's bench confirmed Anthony indeed wasn't going to play. He missed a seventh consecutive game because of a sprained left ankle, taking 29.7 points out of the Nuggets' lineup.
Surprisingly, Coach Phil Jackson didn't zing the Lakers for their effort, as is often his custom after a bad loss.
"I'm not going to berate my team," he said. "We tried to work the ball in the right places, but we weren't fruitful in our end of the court. I'm just glad that didn't happen in a playoff game, that's all."
Meanwhile, the Lakers were still fielding questions in the should-Kobe-play debate. He's battling a sprained ankle.
In a narrow 99-97 victory Wednesday over Charlotte, which was without All-Star forward Gerald Wallace, Bryant had only five points on two-for-12 shooting.
"I think our health people talked to him about his type of injury he has and assured him it's not something that's going to be probably a detriment to him to play on," Jackson said.
Bryant looked spry in the first half Friday, scoring 23 points on eight-for-12 shooting as the Lakers led, 64-59. Even his early misses ended fortuitously: A 28-foot three-point attempt was airballed, but Pau Gasol caught it and dunked it with 0.5 of a second left in the first quarter.
Bryant, however, faded in the second half, making three of 10 shots. He did not have an assist in the game.
In other medical news, Andrew Bynum added a brace to his left knee after sustaining a bruise on it in recent days. The brace isn't as bulky as the one on his right knee, but he now has braces on both knees. He had 10 points and five rebounds against Denver.
The Nuggets (34-16) have been close to automatic at home, going 22-4, but they had been 11-12 on the road, providing one of the league's greatest disparities between home and road records.
They looked as if they were playing in Pepsi Center on Friday. J.R. Smith had 27 points and reserve guard Ty Lawson had 13 points, pushing the pace time after time.
"That's hard to accept as a good defensive team," said Gasol, who had 17 points and 17 rebounds. "We can't allow that to happen."
The Lakers (38-13) play tonight at Portland, where they have lost nine consecutive games, continuing one of their most difficult back-to-backs of the season.