LOS ANGELES — The game was intended to mark the joyous return of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to the Lakers’ starting lineup. What it became was a horrendous collapse at a time they can’t afford to lose.
Every game is precious, but the Lakers let this one get away. They wasted an 18-point lead, lost to the Washington Wizards 103-100 at Staples Center on Friday night and fell 2½ games behind the Houston Rockets in their bid to climb from eighth to seventh in the Western Conference.
“It’s a discouraging loss,” Bryant said. “We’re upset about it, without a shadow of a doubt, and we’ve got to go out on the road and pick it back up.”
As if the wasted opportunity weren’t bad enough, the Lakers also may have another injury to fret about. Forward Antawn Jamison, who had 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench, suffered a sprained right wrist in the third quarter and didn’t return. The Lakers said X-rays were negative, but Jamison is scheduled for an MRI Saturday.
That’s the way it’s gone. One player returns, another goes down.
Gasol played 20½ minutes, but clearly didn’t have his shooting rhythm, making just 2 of 10 shots in his first game back since injuring his right foot Feb. 5.
Bryant missed two games because of a sprained left ankle and finished with 21 points and 11 assists, but he missed jump shots on two consecutive possessions late in the game and then missed again on a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.
But it was their defense that cost them the game. The Lakers led by 16 points at the half, but were outscored 31-17 in the third quarter. The Wizards shot 36 percent in the first two quarters, but 57.5 percent in the second half.
Wizard guard John Wall had six points at the half, but finished with 24. Reserve guard Trevor Ariza was left open for countless 3-point shots and made 7 of 12 for 25 points.
“What happened was we didn’t play hard enough,” coach Mike D’Antoni seethed after the game. “We think we can just figure stuff out. Trevor Ariza has 12 attempts at 3s, and he was wide open. That’s inexcusable.
“There’s no explanation for it. I can’t explain it, but every time we get up 16, it’s like, ‘Well, we’re really good and we don’t have to play hard,’ and we start messing with the game.”
With a sizable lead, the Lakers should have had ample time to work Gasol in with the other starters, especially Howard, who has had difficulty adjusting to another big man. But they let the lead slip away and fell behind midway through the final period when Ariza scored inside for an 81-79 Washington lead.
Now consider this: When the Lakers have their big five in the starting lineup — Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Gasol and Metta World Peace — they are 0-6.
That means there’s work to do. The Wizards aren’t a bad team — they’re 20-15 since Wall returned to the lineup on Jan. 12 — but the Lakers lost because they didn’t maintain their defensive intensity.
“We stopped rotating, stopped hustling on certain plays and left a couple of open jumpers uncontested,” Gasol said. “Those are the type of plays we can’t afford going down the road against anybody. We can’t allow a guy to take a wide open shot. That’s how they got into the game.”
Gasol said his foot was a bit sore after the game. Bryant said the same thing about his ankle. But neither is going to sit, not with a four-game road trip coming up starting Monday at Golden State. They also make stops at Minnesota, Milwaukee and Sacramento.
Those are all winnable games, but not if they play like they did Friday night.
“We have to win games,” said Howard, who had 20 points and 15 rebounds. “We can’t allow things like this to happen.”
If they do, eighth place in the conference is the best they can hope for.