CLEVELAND -- So much for momentum. And progress. And all the other kind things that had been said about the Lakers.
There’s no way to validate another fourth-quarter stumble, a surprisingly familiar 12-point, 12-minute debacle that steered them into a 94-90 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena.
It’s a prototype of many of their losses, fourth-quarter leads slipping away, chances to win gone awry.
If they didn’t learn already from other examples -- Milwaukee, New Jersey, Golden State -- when will the Lakers realize that no lead is safe, even against teams with losing records?
Against the Cavaliers (12-15), who were coming off an embarrassing 108-90 loss in New York the night before, the Lakers (15-10) were the ones left holding the humiliation bag.
Kobe Bryant had 21 points on eight-for-22 shooting and said he was bothered by a strained left groin muscle. Lamar Odom started well with 14 points in the first half but finished with 19. The Lakers’ reserves were very, very quiet, scoring a total of seven points in 54 minutes.
LeBron James had 33 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for the Cavaliers.
Afterward, in a silent, sullen locker room, many of the Lakers had turned their chairs away from the center of the room, facing their lockers while slowly eating pineapple-relish chicken and potatoes.
The Lakers had the fourth-best record in the Western Conference before Thursday, but there’s obviously a gap between them and the teams above.
“That was one we’ve got to have,” Luke Walton said. “That’s what all the top teams in the West do, win when they’re supposed to. Until we start winning them, we’re going to be a step behind Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio.”
The Lakers had won six of seven and appeared on their way to another victory after taking a 78-67 lead on Bryant’s layup with 2:15 left in the third quarter.
If the end of the third quarter was messy -- two misses, three turnovers -- the fourth quarter was simply indescribable: 12 points on five-for-22 shooting (22.7%), including zero-for-seven from three-point range.
An 11-point lead had shrunk to five by the time the fourth quarter began, and it only got worse for the Lakers, who generously allowed the first 10 points of the quarter.
“Can’t do that in this league,” Derek Fisher said. “When you’re the road team and you find an opportunity to crack a game open like we did, you have to be able to close that out. It’s just the professional thing to do. But we’ll learn how to do that as the season goes on.”
The Lakers had plenty of late open looks, but never connected on anything after Walton scored on a put-back with 3:57 to play.
And yet, there were just enough plays to give them hope, only to have it yanked away each time.
They trailed, 92-90, when Odom’s three-point attempt went in and out with 15.9 seconds left -- but Zydrunas Ilgauskas was off-balance when he grabbed the rebound and accidentally threw the ball to Andrew Bynum, who was fouled on a short attempt.
Bynum missed both free throws with 11.9 seconds left -- but Bryant soared in from the top of the key and wrestled the rebound away from Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic.
Bryant then had the presence of mind to call a timeout before falling out of bounds under the basket -- but his three-point attempt over James was off the back of the rim with about four seconds left.
Fisher grabbed the long rebound of Bryant’s miss -- but was called for an over-the-back foul after he collided with Cleveland guard Daniel Gibson.
Basically, the Lakers should have won -- but didn’t.
“You’re going to have losses during the season and you’re going to have tough losses during the season, and we just can’t let those losses multiply,” Bryant said.
Bryant said he was bothered by a groin injury he sustained last Friday at Golden State. He had averaged 25 points and shot a below-average 43.9% in the two games between Golden State and Cleveland.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Bryant said. “I can’t explode to the basket like I want to. I’ve got to rely on my jump shot a lot more. I’m going to have to get into the gym early [today] and figure out how I’m going to shoot through this thing.”
The same could be said for the Lakers, who were obviously irritated by the loss. Normally not a demonstrative type, Fisher argued the over-the-back call with the referees.
“I felt like I got to the ball first and there was contact, but I had two hands on the basketball,” he said. “Had I pushed him first and then secured the rebound, it would have been a foul, but we shouldn’t have been in that spot to begin with.”