The start of their Grammys road trip provided anything but harmony for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Facing their first opportunity to bounce back from a loss since Kobe Bryant turned facilitator and with Dwight Howard out again, the Lakers try to regroup Friday night as they look for a 20th straight victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
During its three-game homestand, all finally seemed right for Los Angeles (20-26) in a season plagued by inconsistency and a lack of chemistry despite its star power. The Lakers averaged 106.0 points and shot 52.8 percent while totaling 89 assists in those victories, and Bryant - third in the league with 28.1 points per game - had more assists (39) than shots (34) in that span.
Bryant seemed well on his way to another double-digit assist total Thursday at Phoenix, racking up nine over the first two-plus quarters in helping the Lakers grab the lead. However, he had none over the final 21 minutes and went 2 for 7 with two turnovers in the last 7:57 as Los Angeles squandered a 13-point lead in the final 10 minutes of a 92-86 defeat.
"Tonight was a big setback for us especially," said guard Steve Nash, who had 11 points in his return to Phoenix. "We were in control of the game and couldn't close it out. That's disappointing."
One of the reasons the Lakers lost their eighth straight road game was Howard leaving with 6:57 remaining after aggravating a shoulder injury that will keep him out Friday.
That means a return to the starting lineup for Pau Gasol, who hasn't hidden his disappointment with coach Mike D'Antoni's decision to bring him off the bench. Gasol, though, has fared well in his seven games as a reserve, averaging 13.1 points and 6.7 rebounds in a little more than 28 minutes a game.
Bryant's 48 assists are his most in any four-game span of his career, and him sharing the ball often provides the Lakers their best chance for a victory. They are 3-15 when Bryant records fewer than five assists and 5-20 when he attempts 22 or more shots. When he takes fewer than 20, Los Angeles is 14-4.
When facing the Timberwolves, Bryant and the Lakers have always found the proper balance for victories since a double-overtime loss March 6, 2007. Los Angeles has won 19 straight over Minnesota (17-25), the longest active streak for one team over another.
The Wolves have dropped five straight after a 96-90 defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday that spoiled the return of coach Rick Adelman, who missed 11 games to be with his wife as she dealt with seizures. Nikola Pekovic had 17 points and 12 rebounds but Minnesota was outscored 12-4 over the final four minutes.
"Teams are playing aggressive and they want to win,'' guard Ricky Rubio said. "We have to come back and don't step back and try to push them.''
That lack of aggressiveness has been most apparent on defense. The Timberwolves have allowed an average of 51.0 percent shooting - 7.9 above their season average - and 101.4 points during their losing streak while being outscored in the paint by 9.6 per game.
Adelman is hoping Pekovic and Alexey Shved having a game under their belts after each missed the previous five will help. Shved had 12 points and three assists off the bench Thursday, while Pekovic posted his seventh double-double in 15 home games with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
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