HOUSTON — As they were walking off the floor at shootaround on Tuesday, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash shared a moment of grim reality.
“We thought it was going to be easier this year,” Bryant said.
He laughed, but he was serious. Later that night, the Los Angeles Lakers lost for the 19th time this season.
This time it was a 125-112 defeat to the Houston Rockets (21-14), who shot 55 percent and made 11 of 25 3-pointers. James Harden had 31 points, nine assists and six rebounds while Jeremy Lin added 19 points, five assists and six rebounds for the Rockets. Chandler Parsons added 20, and Carlos Delfino scored 19 off the bench.
The Rockets were hot and the Lakers (15-19) were outmanned, physically. Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill were all out with assorted health woes, so the Lakers called up Robert Sacre, who had played a game in the D-League as recently as Monday.
Well, the Rockets did not fear Sacre. With no strong defensive presence in the paint, Houston did all the things it wanted to do. The Rockets drove and scored, drove and got fouled, drove and pitched, drove, scored and got fouled.
There were two punctuating plays:
1. Harden received a backdoor pass from Parsons, and dunked on Sacre for a three-point play and 94-82 lead.
2. Lin smoked Metta World Peace with a jerky right-left-right crossover, drew a foul on Sacre and made the bucket to put Houston up 112-98.
“It’s not the D-league,” said an exhausted Sacre. “(Expletive).”
Meanwhile, some perspective has started to wash over the Lakers. Nash sat quietly at his locker and said he thought the Lakers could eventually put it together, but that it might not happen until next summer, or next season. This one, now nearly half over, is slipping away.
“This season,” Nash said, “It’s definitely going to be a challenge to turn it around.”
Bryant was not surprised to hear Nash had said that. He has experienced that same sinking sensation, and although he didn’t even seem to disagree with his teammate, he finds it more difficult to accept such realities.
“He’s a little more reasonable than I am,” Bryant said. “That’s how we kind of bounce off of each other. I’m stubborn as a mule. I’m gonna keep driving. So is he, but he seems to have a little more perspective.”
This was not the conversation anyone in Los Angeles anticipated having at the start of this season, but the Lakers have already been through a coaching change and a series of crippling injuries on top of all the normal challenges associated with the kind of roster re-tooling the Lakers experienced.
The Lakers are a wet paper towel that’s straining to hold their pile of problems.
“We’re down,” first-year coach Mike D’Antoni said.
And so the Lakers embark on that great athlete’s trial of not succumbing to the temptation to give up, even if just packing it in seems like the reasonable thing to do.
“It’s to the point where it’s unacceptable,” Lakers guard Darius Morris said.
Bryant didn’t say it exactly like that, but he might as well have. Actually, he said it was physically impossible for him to accept that this season is simply going to be a bad one, even though he has that feeling.
“Everybody has that,” Bryant said. “But I just don’t succumb to it whatsoever.”
To turn it around, the Lakers will have to start playing better defense. They’re the No. 5 scoring team in the NBA, but they’re fifth from the bottom in points allowed. The Lakers have lost four in a row and allowed an average of 111.8 points in those games. They made 14 3-pointers on Tuesday, but gave up 11.
“It’s mostly effort and attention to detail,” D’Antoni said.
Houston does happen to be the NBA’s fastest and highest-scoring team, and certainly it would have helped the Lakers to have Howard or any other actual NBA player at center on Tuesday night.