The adrenaline-fueled ability of the Lakers to succeed without Kobe Bryant in the lineup came to a screeching halt Tuesday.
Their 112-91 loss to the San Antonio Spurs showed little of the noteworthy play exhibited in recent outings. In those games, Andrew Bynum dominated the glass. The Lakers showed defensive discipline. And nearly everyone -- the front line (Bynum, Pau Gasol), the small forwards (Metta World Peace, Matt Barnes) and the point guards (Ramon Sessions, Steve Blake) -- provided a balanced offense.
But a week after handing the Spurs a double-digit loss, they couldn't duplicate the effort, leaving the Lakers (39-23) with only a half-game lead over the Clippers (38-23) for third place in the Western Conference standings, with four games remaining.
When Bryant will be able to provide support beyond coaching from the bench remains unclear. He declined to talk with The Times about the sore left shin that's sidelined him for six consecutive games, and the appearance of his long-time trainer, Tim Grover, at the Lakers-Spurs game raises questions.
Bryant has walked pain-free and participated in shooting and one-on-one workouts, but he still has to prove he can run and jump without pain.
Coach Mike Brown said "most likely not" when asked if Bryant would play Wednesday against Golden State.
Even though the Lakers are exercising caution with his return, they surely missed Bryant in the lineup against San Antonio.
"He always makes a difference. Whether you win or lose, his presence is always felt," Brown said. "He's a guy that can feel or understand tempo. He may not say anything to our guys, but the way he helps control it is he may run to the block and ask for it and get the guys to settle down. It kind of calms everybody down."
The Lakers hardly looked calm against San Antonio.
They committed 19 turnovers, allowing the Spurs to score 20 fast-break points. Bynum, Gasol and Barnes may have appeared solid with a combined 53 points on 22-of-42 shooting, but the Lakers only broke even in the rebounding battle, 37-37. After Tony Parker was held to a 2-of-12 outing last week, he lighted up the Lakers with a 29-point effort on 14-of-20 shooting. Once World Peace sat out after collecting his third foul with 8:10 remaining in the second quarter, the Spurs reeled off a 18-0 run.
Gasol sounded skeptical that the unraveling took place simply because of Bryant's absence.
"I don't know if it was a matter of him being there or not being there," Gasol said. "We had been doing well with and without him."
But they didn't do well against San Antonio. Still, one loss probably won't dampen the Lakers' belief that Bryant's long-term health is a more important consideration than getting him back in time to secure the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
"I think he'll be ready regardless," Gasol said. "I have no doubt about it. But obviously it's good to get a game or two before the playoffs to get a better rhythm."