- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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"Maybe we're overhyped."
He didn't believe it, of course, letting the words slip out of his mouth through a sly grin, but Kobe Bryant said it on Thursday to dismiss a question about the Los Angeles Lakers' easy early-season schedule.
Twenty-four hours later, after a 102-87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas, his jest might have turned out to be prophetic and the question has to be asked again:
How good are the Lakers?
Cleveland controlled Los Angeles from start to finish on the defending champs' home court, opening up a 20-point lead in the second quarter that wouldn't shrink smaller than six the rest of the way.
What went down was a recipe for disaster worse than grandma's secret set of ingredients for holiday fruitcake.
Shots were missed: L.A. shot just 36.5 percent from the field.
Shots were allowed to be made: Cleveland's 54.3 percent shooting was the highest by any Lakers opponent all season.
The bench was outplayed: In what's becoming an all-too-familiar theme; the L.A. subs were outscored 31-17.
Runs weren't stopped: The Cavs had a 9-2 spurt in the first quarter, two runs of 12-2, a 9-0 run in the second, and two more runs in the third of 9-2 and 11-2 to blow the game open.
(More on the crowd later.)
"They came out and just worked us," Bryant said after his near triple-double (35 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) was dwarfed by an 11-for-32 shooting night, four turnovers and the technical.
Leading up to the game, Bryant deflected any talk of a rivalry between himself and LeBron James, between himself and Shaquille O'Neal or between his team and the Cavaliers, but he clearly was pressing on Friday.
The more times he missed a shot in the lane after absorbing a blow by Anthony Parker or a body from O'Neal and didn't hear a whistle, the more demonstrative his protests toward the referees became.
The Lakers didn't play with the composure of a been-there, done-that champion. Does this team just not remember what it is like to be tested? Was this the Lakers reverting back to the Jekyll & Hyde squad we saw against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals this past spring?
"We have five losses," Phil Jackson said, presumably hoping to remind everybody that that number still looks pretty minuscule against the Lakers' league-leading 23 wins.
But it was the kind of loss that makes you rethink all those previous victories. The Lakers are 6-5 on the season against teams that had better than .500 records as of Dec. 25.
What's more troubling is that when L.A. has lost this season, it has played so poorly that it might as well not even have showed up for the game.
The Lakers' average margin of defeat sits at 14.6 when you add Friday's 15-point game to losses to the Utah Jazz by eight, to Houston by 10, to the Denver Nuggets by 26 and to the Dallas Mavericks by 14.
L.A. could rationalize the other losses. It didn't have Pau Gasol in the lineup for three of them; Kobe had the flu against Utah; two of those came on the second night of a back-to-back; the Nuggets, Jazz and Rockets had revenge on their minds after losing to the Lakers in the playoffs
But what excuses can the Lakers make after this one? They were rested. Everybody was healthy (as healthy as they're going to be, at least; Bryant is going to have to play with the fractured finger). They were at home.
"I have to chew on this game for a while before I tell you guys what I feel about it," Jackson said at the start of his postgame news conference.
The normally too-cool-for-school Staples Center crowd didn't reserve judgment, however. The fans booed the Lakers off the court during a timeout in the first half, then stopped the game temporarily with about four minutes to go in the fourth by showering the floor with foam fingers that were given out at the gate.
In fact, the fans were the only people involved with the Lakers that Jackson was ready to persecute. He excused his players' technical fouls, but said "the crowd deserved theirs."
(In the fans' defense, they could simply have been lost without their leader. Jack Nicholson wasn't in his customary courtside seat for this one.)
Sometimes you just have a bad shooting night. The Lakers were 5-for-18 from 3-point range, and Mo Williams, Delonte West and Jamario Moon combined to go 5-for-5 for Cleveland. And sometimes, as Bryant said, "The calls don't go your way."
But there are some themes developing that need to be addressed.
The bench has been wildly inconsistent. With Odom averaging a career low in points, neither Jordan Farmar nor Shannon Brown emerging as Fisher's No. 1 backup, Sasha Vujacic still struggling with his shot and Luke Walton being injured, L.A. doesn't have depth comparable to that of many of its opponents.
Andrew Bynum, slowed by a respiratory infection, has not been the same player he was in the beginning of the season when Gasol was out.
The schedule, although out of the team's control, has heavily favored the Lakers thus far as it has been overloaded with home games and opponents with lousy records.
"It's a good wake-up call for us," Bryant said after the game, straight-faced. This time, he actually appeared to believe what he was saying.
Does this Lakers team just not remember what it is like to be tested?