HOUSTON — As the two walked off the hardwood floor, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash turned to each other.
They could only shake their heads as they tried to make sense of a season heightened with expectations over a star-studded lineup suddenly evaporating into a never-ending comedy of errors.
“‘And you thought it was going to be easier this year,'” Bryant sarcastically remarked to him following morning shootaround.
Hours later, very little of that narrative changed. The Lakers’ 125-112 loss Tuesday to the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center marked the team’s fourth consecutive defeat and further deepened a hole that proves more and more difficult to climb out of to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years. When Bryant recalled that conversation afterwards, he let out a grin and a laugh. It marked a brief moment of where Bryant could find humor in an otherwise depressing season.
The Lakers (15-19) rank in 11th place in the Western Conference and four games behind the Denver Nuggets (20-16) for the final playoff spot, a gap that will widen significantly if the Lakers don’t stop losing soon.
The Lakers hardly predicted they’d worry about barely scraping into the postseason. Certainly not Nash.
He signed with the Lakers this offseason to a three-year, $27 million deal, after spending so many years as the team’s arch enemy as a dazzling point guard with the Phoenix Suns. Nash made the move partly to be near his children that live in Phoenix and partly because this marked the best chance for the 38-year-old guard to win a championship.
But Nash conceded that dream, at least for this season, appears to be slipping away in what he’s said has been his most difficult season in his 17-year career.
“That motivates me everyday,” Nash said. “There’s no guarantee. Three or four weeks ago, people said it would get better. Right now, I don’t think there’s a guarantee it will. The only remedy is continue to work hard and give yourself a chance to get better. With time, and that might mean through the summer, it’ll get better. But for this season, it’s definitely going to be a challenge to turn this around.”
Nash then rattled off a bunch of persisting problems the Lakers need to fix, including finding on-court chemistry, improving the league’s worst ranking in transition defense and fielding a healthy roster that currently lacks Dwight Howard (right shoulder), Pau Gasol (concussion) and Jordan Hill (left hip). The Lakers haven’t addressed these issues one bit. Not when Nash was hurt because of a fractured left leg. Not when he’s returned.
The offense has blossomed enough to rank fifth overall in points scored per game (102.88), but that hasn’t won games. In fact, the nine of the 15 losses under Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni happened despite the team scoring more than 100 points.
“He’s a little more reasonable than I am,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said when told of Nash’s admitted skepticism. “That’s how we kind of bounce off each other. I’m as stubborn as a mule. I’ll keep driving this forward. So is he. But he tends to have more perspective than I do.”
Still, Bryant tweeted last week conceding he has self doubts but manages to overcome that. Isn’t this just another example?
“Everybody has that,” Bryant said. “But I won’t succumb to that whatsoever.”
Nash vows he won’t either.
“One thing we can’t accept is to take our foot off the gas,” Nash said. “We have to fight.”
Where to begin, of course, involves the defense.
It appeared they showed improvement in that area as seldom-used reserves in Robert Sacre and Earl Clark showed an eagerness for more playing time. Metta World Peace dialed up the intensity with 24 points on nine of 14 shooting. Bryant mixed between facilitating (seven assists) and scoring (20 points). Nash said he found a more concerted effort to shoot more (16 points on six of 10 assists), while passing (his 10 assists put him as the fifth player to reach over 10,000 career assists).
Yet, the Lakers were outscored 38-26 in the third quarter, an element the team blamed on fatigue.
Will the Lakers ever be able to overcome that?
“It’s got to,” D’Antoni said. “There’s no reason not to. It’s mostly effort and attention to detail. We’ve got to do it if we’re going to get out of this rut.”
For now, though, it left Nash grudgingly reflecting on becoming the fifth player to collect over 10,000 assists, leaving him in company with Magic Johnson (10,141 assists), Mark Jackson (10,334), Jason Kidd (11,969) and John Stockton (15,806).
“If I take a step back, that’s an example of a fairy tale career. It’s hard to enjoy that right now,” said Nash, who finished with 16 points and 10 assists. “I don’t want to discredit it. I don’t want to not appreciate the company I share in this milestone. But that’s the farthest thing from my mind. I’m just trying to find a way to win one game.”
Perhaps that’s why Nash hardly cared about waxing nostalgic about what he’ll do with the game ball (“I don’t know”). It’s also perhaps he was self deprecating on whether he could surpass Stockton (“That’s a no”).
“I guess I’ll climb a couple spots if these guys aren’t playing,” Nash said. “If they come out of retirement, that might make it harder on me.”
Bryant lent a sympathetic ear.
“That’s amazing from where he’s come from to be able to accomplish that,” Bryant said. “You can’t lose sight of what that number means.”
Meanwhile, the Lakers are trying not to lose sight of how to salvage this season.
Nash says those close to him try to provide comforting words to justify the team’s poor record: the swift coaching change, his fractured left leg, the newly assembled roster, the lack of training camp to go over D’Antoni’s system. But Nash doesn’t want to fall into that trap.
The Lakers should be better than this, but they aren’t. And regardless of what the logic tells him about the team’s tough path, he vows he won’t back away from it.
“You can’t give up, can’t splinter, can’t point fingers,” Nash said. “Each of us has to do a little bit more a little bit better and see where it leads us down the road. Right now we can’t let our foot off the gas. Even if we’re not finding success, we have to keep pushing.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org