AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Q: How do you make the Lakers panic? A: Give them a double-digit lead.
Their prowess, or lack thereof, was on display again when an 18-point lead melted to nothing, something as randomly small as a muffed last-second alley-oop handing the Lakers a 98-97 victory Sunday over the Detroit Pistons.
It was a game to remember for the Lakers, owners of a rare two-game win streak on the road, and also a game to forget as Steve Nash missed two free throws with 2.7 seconds left.
That's Steve Nash. Career 90% free-throw shooter.
But that's the Lakers (22-26) this season: Expect the completely unexpected.
"I'm not happy about this one tonight," Kobe Bryant said, emitting a gurgling, almost choking, sound of displeasure before speaking to reporters. "It's a letdown."
Dwight Howard was a late scratch because he didn't want to aggravate his sore right shoulder, and it didn't help the Lakers avoid what is now clearly a cut-and-paste situation over the last week.
They held an 18-point lead against New Orleans and had to scramble to win by five. They fumbled a 13-point advantage against Phoenix in a six-point loss. Somehow they almost coughed up a 29-point lead against Minnesota before recovering to win.
Against Detroit, there were a ton of smiles as they took a 72-54 lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter. A 2-1 record on their seven-game Grammy trip was as easy as putting away a team that entered with an 18-29 record.
The Lakers were blistered by backup point guard Will Bynum, who had 18 points and 10 assists. Rookie Andre Drummond bludgeoned them down low, and center Greg Monroe had 20 points and 12 rebounds.
The Lakers still got that 2-1 record so far on this trip, but it induced a rare display of dourness from Nash, who missed his free throws just like Earl Clark missed two from the line with 16.8 seconds left.
"I feel bad for my guys," Nash said quietly. "I could have cost us the game."
Nash shouldn't feel that badly. Drummond couldn't get a handle on an alley-oop pass from another rookie, Kyle Singler, with 1.2 seconds left.
All's well that ends well? Maybe, despite what Bryant and Nash said.
Clark continued to show his potential, scoring 17 points and taking 10 rebounds. Pau Gasol had 23 points and 10 rebounds in Howard's starting spot, though his defense wasn't always on point.
Bryant, for a change, didn't come close to a triple-double, finishing with 18 points, five assists and three rebounds.
There was, however, a touch of throwback, Bryant uncorking two dunks in two minutes early in the third quarter, including an emphatic one-hander after Metta World Peace stole the ball and fed him perfectly.
Those were the good times for the Lakers, who then lost their will to defend the rest of the way.
"Without Dwight, we're not getting some stops that we probably should get," Coach Mike D'Antoni said.
Howard said he didn't want to rush back and possibly aggravate the pain of a torn labrum in his shoulder "every week or two." He is still listed as day to day. The Lakers' next game is Tuesday against Brooklyn.
World Peace presumably will be there.
Often scrutinized when returning here to the Palace, World Peace was hit with a flagrant foul after wrapping his hand around the back of Brandon Knight's neck before a timeout with 1:43 left in the second quarter. It happened after Gasol was fouled by Monroe while attempting a shot.
"He's a small guy," World Peace said. "He was trying his hardest to keep me off [the boards]. I don't know where he's from, I don't even know what school he went to. He's a tough, tough point guard, shooting guard, whatever he is."
For the record, Knight's in his second season from Kentucky. And he's mainly a point guard, one who wants the NBA to review the play because he says World Peace punched him.
Also for the record, the Lakers might be onto something if they can finally stay ahead once they get ahead.
At the very least, it's different from the double-digit deficits they always seemed to face not that long ago.