The Lakers made Mike D'Antoni look good Tuesday, but not in the way he would want.
Asked before the Lakers faced the Philadelphia 76ers if his team was looking ahead to facing the division-leading Clippers on Friday, D'Antoni was blunt.
"I hope not. We're not that good," he said.
He was right about that. The Lakers really are not that good.
They had put many elements of their game together after the return of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol and found some consistency while winning six of seven games but stalled Tuesday with a poor shooting performance in a sluggish, 103-99 loss at Staples Center that dropped them below .500 again (15-16).
"We're struggling to make the kind of connectivity it takes to make a team a team," Nash said after the Lakers' 39.4% shooting effort. "We look like a bunch of guys trying to learn each other."
Defense was again their downfall after a fourth-quarter push and a three by Kobe Bryant had brought them within two points.
And although D'Antoni believes their offense has improved thanks to Nash's sure-handedness and vision, it doesn't say much that Dwight Howard didn't hit his only field goal until 6 minutes 15 seconds remained in the third quarter. Howard finished with seven points.
Bryant, whose streak of 10 straight 30-point performances had ended Friday against Portland, collected a game-high 36 on Tuesday. He took an unbalanced 29 of the Lakers' 94 field-goal attempts, a one-man show on a night that his supporting cast was listless.
"Fourteen for 29 is pretty good compared to a lot of other stats," D'Antoni said, "so I'm not complaining."
What he should have complained about was his team's inability to take control of the game or assert itself.
"Just not a good night," D'Antoni said.
The Lakers don't play again until Friday, when they're the visitors against the Clippers. The buildup for that game would have been more intense if the Clippers' winning streak hadn't ended at 17 at Denver on Tuesday, but the Clippers will still have the better record. And a younger, faster, more dynamic team.
But 76ers Coach Doug Collins said Tuesday he saw reasons to believe the Lakers will solidify as they become more accustomed to each other, work out how best to deploy Gasol, and develop a more balanced bench.
"They're going to get better and better as the season goes on," he said. "And they're a team that can score a ton of points quickly."
Whether out of politeness or brevity, he didn't mention that the Lakers also give up points almost as quickly as they score.
The Lakers' key weapon remains the same as it has always been: Bryant. "He's a basketball genius," said Collins, who sees Bryant as ageless, not aging.
"Kobe's still amazing. I was just looking at the stuff in there: 10 of the last 11 games, 40-plus minutes, 31 points a game," Collins said of the scouting videos he analyzed. "I've watched him in the Olympics this summer, and he is playing so well."
Collins said he has long been impressed by Bryant's on-court evolution.
"As guys get older, the guys who really are the savants, the game becomes easier. They don't waste energy," he said. "When you're younger sometimes you chase your tail, and you get older and the game slows down. And he knows where he wants the ball, how he wants to get it, how he's going to get it and what he's going to do to you once he gets it, and so that's just an incredible confidence that he has."
Bryant's confidence and genius weren't enough for the Lakers to break through their funk and find a balance that will work for them.
"I think the he feels the energy. He tries to put us on his back," D'Antoni said.
Even Bryant could do only so much Tuesday. "We got ourselves back in the game tonight, but just couldn't get over the hump," he said.
About how the Lakers made it close despite Gasol and Howard having such poor performances on offense, Bryant was succinct: "I have no idea."
Figuring it out Friday against the Clippers will be their biggest challenge in a season they will have to work hard to salvage.