Steve Nash became the fifth player to pass more than 10,000 career assists… (Scott Halleran / Getty Images )
HOUSTON — No Dwight Howard, no Pau Gasol and, as usual, no defense.
The Lakers created a fun game for almost three quarters, the only claim they could make Tuesday.
The Houston Rockets beat them, 125-112, and on the bright side for the Lakers, nobody got hurt.
Houston Texans stars Andre Johnson and Arian Foster met with Kobe Bryant after the game in a trainer's room. If they're smart, they didn't remind him they're in the playoffs. There's no guarantee the Lakers (15-19) get there themselves in a few months, as shocking as it sounds in the second week of January.
Losers of four consecutive games, the Lakers are now 5-11 on the road and suddenly yearning for the good old days of their 15-18 road record last season under former coach Mike Brown.
Howard did not play because of a shoulder injury, Gasol remained in Los Angeles because of a concussion and Jordan Hill stayed home because of a hip injury, leaving the Lakers with Robert Sacre as their starting center a day after he played against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers with the Lakers' Development League team.
The problem wasn't Sacre, who had 10 points. It was the Lakers' defense.
The Rockets (21-14) actually trailed at halftime, 62-59, but amassed a 38-point third quarter and also a 16-2 run to take a comfortable nine-point lead into the fourth. They shot 55.2% for the night and made 11 three-pointers.
Will the Lakers' defense ever get better?
"It's got to," Coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's mostly effort and attention to detail. If we're going to get out of this rut, that's where it's got to be."
As Antawn Jamison said, "Teams are licking their chops when they see us."
The Lakers haven't lost five consecutive games since March 2007. They play at San Antonio on Wednesday. There's always Metta World Peace for unchecked optimism.
"We have the better team every single night but it's just not translating right now," he said.
Bryant had 20 points, missing a chance to be the first player since Michael Jordan in 1990-91 with 18 consecutive games of 27 or more points, according to Elias Sport Bureau.
Steve Nash, though, had 16 points and 10 assists to become only the fifth player to pass 10,000 career assists. He is 136 behind Magic Johnson (10,141).
Curiously, Howard was already irritated before the game even started. He didn't like how the Lakers described his shoulder injury.
"I don't know what story came out and said I tore my labrum," he said an hour before tipoff, insisting the labrum instead had "separated from the bone" in his right shoulder . . . which is pretty much a tear.
"When people saw [the terminology], they were thinking the worst. It's not as bad as what people were saying," he said. "They just want to be real cautious with it and make sure it doesn't happen to where it tears and I have to have surgery."
Either way, Howard is out until at least Monday, perhaps a bit longer.
The Lakers led by 14 in the first quarter, playing freely and with fun. Bryant felt it too in the second quarter, dunking with Chandler Parsons right behind him and looking immediately to an ecstatic Lakers bench.
It didn't last. It couldn't. Just not enough talent on the Lakers' side.
As promised, though, World Peace saw time at backup center, briefly guarding Greg Smith until picking up his second foul.
World Peace playing center for the Lakers. That's what this season has become.