Posted by on Mar 29, 2013 in Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Lakers Analysis | 14 comments

p>And after another road game with another disappointing result, they have certainly seen better days.

Bucks over L.A., 113-103. The Lakers are 37-36, a scant half-game ahead of ¬†those pesky, tie-breaker owning Utah Jazz, and 1.5 forward of the Dallas Mavericks. The exhausting slog towards … something or other, continues.

It was the team”s second game without Metta World Peace on the wing, Wednesday in Minneapolis, they won, Thursday, they didn”t, but the common thread were serious lapses on the defensive side of the ball. 117 points allowed to the Timberwolves, currently the NBA”s 25th most efficient offense, then after giving up only 18 in the first quarter against the Bucks, L.A. opened up like a blooming springtime tulip. Over the final three quarters, Milwaukee racked up 95 points. This from an offense ranked 21st in efficiency.

This shouldn”t come as a surprise. On the season, the Lakers are , and are only marginally effective with him there.

Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant left the Bradley Center Thursday using a crutch . Steve Nash couldn”t finish the game, . Two more body blows in a year where they haven”t stopped.

The Lakers have played this season under an extraordinary set of circumstances, from the summertime roster overhaul to a winless training camp to Mike Brown”s firing to Mike D”Antoni”s hiring to a season so full of injuries it has played out like an NBA installment of the “Final Destination” series. And this is before you factor in any self-inflicted wounds. A few players have commented not just on the physical difficulties the year has presented, but the mental drain as well. Particularly those first few weeks of transition and upheaval. For a while, I”ve wondered exactly where the point of no return might be. That place where the Lakers, for a variety of reasons, just don”t have the ability to effectively fight back any more.

The injury to World Peace might have been it.

The Lakers didn”t just look tired to me in this week”s back-to-back, but frayed. On the court, and in the locker room. They built a big lead against Minnesota, and barely held on down the stretch. They built a big lead against a better team in Milwaukee, and came unglued. The signs of mental and physical fatigue were all over the place. When he”s tired, Kobe gets tunnel vision and starts doing everything himself. When they get tired, teammates let him do it. Collectively, they fall one rotation behind defensively.

There”s weariness in the locker room, as well. Kobe as if he has nothing to do with whether or not it happens, while teammates note the need to go away from him, even if they don”t actually do it. The coach looks perpetually like he just ate bad clams. Normally, the challenges of playing with Kobe are balanced by a combination of his excellent qualities and team success. This year, the Lakers have had plenty of the former but little of the latter. Turns out the winning makes a big difference. The dynamic is just one stress point — Howard”s frustration with defensive help and Gasol”s tenuous relationship with D”Antoni are others — sucking the life from a team that hasn”t played with a consistent lineup at any point this year.

(One very telling statistic emphasizing the importance of continuity: Via Elias, of all the two-man combinations in L.A.”s big four — meaning two on the floor, two on the bench — the most successful on a per-minute basis is still Kobe and Pau, who are a plus-84 in just over 222 minutes. Bryant and Howard, by comparison, are only plus-41 in 466 minutes while Nash/Howard is plus-13 in 155 minutes. The worst combo? Nash and Bryant, without either big. Minus-82 in 172:34 of floor time.)¬†

The Lakers looked cooked. Not permanently — I still think Howard re-signs this summer — but for whatever time is left in the season. They know the defense, inconsistent all year with World Peace, will suffer without him. They know other guys (Kobe, for instance) are working through major physical problems just to get on the floor. But something seemed to snap the wrong way in these two games.

Maybe I”m wrong. I”m not on the road with them. This team hasn”t won both sides of a back-to-back all year. They”ve played a schedule full of bad games, sloppy with the ball and in rotations. Perhaps Wednesday and Thursday”s games showed nothing out of the ordinary for the 2012-13 season. And I”ve already said they”re not winning anything, anyway.

Still, they just looked different to me, and if the Lakers have finally been pushed past that breaking point, the last nine games could have some very unpleasant moments.