CLEVELAND — The Lakers have been down this path, a soft, friendly, pliant tract of land they'd rather not reenter.
But there it was, in plain view, another example of a team out-toughing them, a label they'd hoped to have shed after winning a championship, only to have it bite them again on a few occasions this season.
The latest sampling came Thursday, a 93-87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers that left Kobe Bryant in the mood to publicly criticize his team's play, a rarity, to be sure.
It was hard to argue with his rationale after Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were outmuscled by their big-man counterparts at Quicken Loans Arena, giving the Lakers a loss in the opener of their eight-game trip.
Bryant was also outplayed, by LeBron James, who shot better and scored more points, particularly in a decisive fourth quarter that handed the Cavaliers (33-11) a sweep in the season series with the Lakers (32-10), a piece of tiebreaking information that just might be useful in, say, June.
"The mentality has to change a little bit playing against these teams," Bryant said. "These teams are physical, tough-minded, hard-nosed type of teams. We have to make some decisions there. We have to try to step up to match that. That's not part of our DNA. We have to step up and match that and still play skillful basketball."
The Lakers were anything but skillful Thursday, a litany of late-game gaffes costing them a chance at a victory.
With the Lakers down two, Gasol missed two free throws with 24.1 seconds left, reminiscent of a game last month in which he missed two free throws with 23.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a tight game against Sacramento.
The Lakers eventually won that game in double overtime but received no reprieve this time.
"I got up to the line and I'm still thinking about a couple of other times that I could have delivered and finished a play," Gasol said. "Hopefully, the next time that I'm in that position and things don't work out a couple of times, I'm able to shake that off and step up to the plate and convert whatever the situation is."
On a previous possession with a little under a minute left, Gasol missed two short attempts, one of which was blocked by James, the indisputable player of the game.
James had 37 points, shot an efficient 13 for 25 and also had nine assists. Bryant had 31 points on 12-for-31 shooting. He had four assists.
Gasol had 13 points on five-for-14 shooting. Andrew Bynum had only seven points. The Cavaliers had 42 points in the paint, the Lakers only 26, part of an across-the-board effort by Cavaliers big men Shaquille O'Neal (13 points), Anderson Varejao (11 points) and J.J. Hickson (11 points, 14 rebounds).
"Their big [players] were very active, very physical and wore us down," said Bryant, who also wasn't thrilled when pulling back the lens for a big-picture analysis.
"I think last year we were probably a little hungrier and played a little harder," he said. "This year, when we played them two times, they were the hungrier team. They sense that they want to win a championship, they want to go after it, so they're playing with a sense of urgency that we played with last year."
How can that be changed?
"Go to practice and strangle every single one of them," Bryant said of his teammates. He was joking, presumably. Then he suggested more physical practices if "this is the type of game we're going to face."
"Denver steamrolled us with physical play. Cleveland on Christmas Day.
"It's tough to repeat. We're not the only team in history that's dealt with this. It's something that we have to try to figure out as other teams in the past who have repeated have to figure out."
The seeds of discontent could be seen after Bryant missed a 19-footer at the third-quarter buzzer. He had wanted Gasol to set a screen, so he scowled and shook his fist at him. The Lakers led most of the game, but trailed at that point, 67-65.
The fourth quarter said it all: James had 12 points on five-for-seven shooting, Bryant only four points on one-for-six shooting.
The Lakers were also unhappy that Ron Artest was called for a foul on Varejao during a rebound with 21.2 seconds left, Jackson calling it "kind of weird."
The Lakers got a break before the game with the news that Cavaliers All-Star guard Mo Williams would be out four to six weeks because of a sprained left shoulder. They couldn't capitalize.
They now move on to tonight's game in New York, where Bryant set a Madison Square Garden record with 61 points last season in a 126-117 victory. He wasn't really in a forward-thinking mood after Thursday's game.
"They know I'm [angry]," he said of his teammates. "I don't have to say anything right now."
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Kobe vs. LeBron
How the numbers stack up for the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Cleveland's LeBron James in the teams' two meetings this season:
*--* Dec. 25 at Staples Center: Cleveland 102, Lakers 87 Min. FG-FGA FT-FTA Reb. Ast. Pts. Bryant 45 11-32 12-12 9 8 35 James 40 9-19 6-11 4 9 26 Thursday at Cleveland: Cleveland 93, Lakers 87 Min. FG-FGA FT-FTA Reb. Ast. Pts. Bryant 40 12-31 5-8 2 4 31 James 40 13-25 10-13 5 9 37 *--*