Not looking like the champs

CHICAGO -- The Los Angeles Lakers looked great for the first quarter-and-a-half of the first true road game of their current six-game trip on Friday (we won't count that "away" game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday as part of the trip) and then looked pretty pedestrian the rest of the way.

They led by 12 after the first 18 minutes and were outscored by 16 over the final 30 in their 88-84 loss to the upstart Chicago Bulls.

It was an eerie microcosm of their season thus far. They were 8-0 to start things off and have gone just 8-7 since then.

They pointed to this trip as the tipping point when things were supposed to come together. They framed their four-game losing streak as merely a wake-up call that came earlier than they scheduled with the front desk. Things were looking up with Andrew Bynum's return to the court and President Barack Obama's championship congratulations slated for the early part of next week. Derek Fisher even broke out one of his patented speeches after the Clippers game to galvanize the group before it headed east for 11 days.

There were motivating factors available by the fistful when they walked into the United Center. They could win one for The Gipper, as coach Phil Jackson declared at the morning shootaround that it would be his last game on the sidelines at his old stomping grounds. It was nationally televised on ESPN against an emerging star, Derrick Rose, so Kobe Bryant had a grand stage to display his dominance over yet another young buck. It was Shannon Brown's homecoming, so they could have pulled together to make him look good in front of his 13 friends and family members in the stands and dozens of others watching on their TVs in Maywood, Ill., only 10 miles away.

Instead, they turned the ball over 19 times, allowed the Bulls shooters to go 8-of-14 on 3-pointers from the second quarter on, and let a double-digit disappear. Then they faced a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter before a too-little, too-late 15-7 rally to end the game.

"Our team defense is bad right now," Lamar Odom said. "We give up momentum, give up these big runs. If it continues to be like this, we'll lose. We can lose a lot."

It's not the first time it's happened, either.

It started with the first loss of the season when they ran out to a 14-point lead in Denver and squandered it. They were up 19 in Utah and 12 in Houston and lost those games, too.

As the leads let up, so too did the discussion about winning 70 games. Right now they're digging themselves a hole they'll need to climb out of if they want to finish with the best record come playoff time. Their .696 winning percentage is fourth in the West and fifth in the NBA.

Coming into the night, the Bulls, at 12-8, were the only team on the six-game trip with a winning record (Indiana is now 11-10 after a Friday win). The other five teams have a combined record of 38-73.

A perfect road trip would have said something about where the Lakers were heading. Instead, you have to look at their 6-5 road record up to this point (5-5 if you don't count that Clippers game) and scratch your head when you see that the two top dogs in the conference -- San Antonio and Dallas -- are both 8-1 on the road.

"They're playing much better than we are right now," said Jackson.

Bryant blamed the fourth-quarter defense.

"We just didn't do our coverages the right way," Bryant said. "We did a good job throughout the game and then at a critical juncture we blew a couple assignments."

But you could just as easily blame the team's second-quarter offense when they went just 4-of-15 from the floor, scoring a measly 10 points and letting Chicago back in it.

Pau Gasol came into the postgame locker room after logging 40-plus minutes yet again and was asked what was happening to the team's offense that has now scored fewer than 90 points in two straight games and fewer than 100 in seven of the last nine.

"I don't know," Gasol said, searching for an answer. "I think ... What do I think ..."

He has every reason to be perplexed.

This team is used to repeating as champions, not repeating mistakes.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.