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That’s how the seesaw looks

The Lakers’ season was summed up Sunday in 48 minutes that were alternately miserable and inspiring, atrocious and exhilarating, fine and flawed.

Their 102-100 loss to the New Jersey Nets was a microcosm of what their season has been so far -- and what it is likely to continue to be.

It was filled with signs that they can be a force in the Western Conference, signs even that Lamar Odom, who had been struggling the last 10 days, was emerging from his funk.

But it was also dotted with nagging indications that the Lakers are missing the defensive cohesion that is the foundation of any winning team, a backbone they must be able to rely upon throughout the season and cannot count upon now after losing three straight games for the first time this season.

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A Lakers lead that grew to 12 points early in the third quarter became a 12-point deficit with stunning swiftness midway through the fourth quarter, the Nets riding a 19-7 run to exceed the 87 points they’d averaged in their previous 13 games.

The Nets, who were led by Richard Jefferson’s 27 points and galvanized by Jason Kidd’s 14 assists, seemed surprised by their good fortune.

“We had moments when we were really pushing the ball up the court and we were able to play at a high level for probably five or six minutes,” said Bostjan Nachbar, who scored 15 points off the Nets’ bench, including the two free throws that gave his team the lead for good with 28.4 seconds to play.

“We were scoring pretty much every time down, and quick scores too. That gave us about a 10-point cushion we had going into the last three, four minutes and that helped a lot, especially after they made that run toward the end.”

The Nets, playing the finale of a four-game trip that began with a blowout loss at Utah, showed “great grit,” according to their coach, Lawrence Frank. They needed every bit of it in the final minutes too.

The Lakers, home barely 24 hours after playing three games in four nights on the road, mustered the last shreds of their energy to pull within a point when Kobe Bryant hit the first two of three free throws he was awarded with 6.1 seconds left. But Bryant missed the third, Sasha Vujacic fouled Nachbar and the Nets forward hit one of two free throws for a two-point New Jersey lead.

The Lakers’ final play wasn’t designed for Vladimir Radmanovic -- Coach Phil Jackson said he had hoped Andrew Bynum could have used his height advantage in the post -- but the ball ended up in Radmanovic’s hands for a three-point shot that missed.

The Lakers didn’t lose the game there, just as they didn’t lose it on Bryant’s missed free throw.

They lost it on the defensive end, during the Nets’ 35-point third quarter and 30-point final quarter.

“Defense, defense, defense, defense,” said Odom, who fouled out with seven seconds left after scoring 16 points, on five-for-six shooting from the floor.

“When you’re at home and the crowd is giving you energy you can win games like that. We had a letdown. We let them back in it. We gave them an opportunity to win the game, and they did.”

With great glee.

“It was the biggest win of the season, for sure,” Nachbar said.

And one of the most dispiriting losses for the Lakers.

“We had them down by 12. We have nobody to blame but ourselves,” Odom said.

“We get these teams down by 12, we’ve got to put them away. We let them back in it. The season goes up and down but we’ve got to protect our home court.”

Fatigue was not an excuse, Odom said.

“No. We’re a young team, deep,” he said. “We just have to sustain our energy on the defensive end.”

Before Sunday’s game, the Lakers had been allowing 100.8 points per game. That, obviously, increased, if only marginally. They also turned the ball over 18 times, again more than their previous average of 16.5.

Slight differences in both cases, sure. But enough to mean a loss or two. Or three in a row.

If the Lakers can find anything positive from this game, it was Odom’s 16 points in 38-plus minutes after three games in which he had scored four, eight and 10 points. He had said before the game that he was so eager to end his slump and regain his old rhythm that “I would eat glass right now.”

That wouldn’t have tasted any worse than the sour defeat the Lakers absorbed, a loss in which they learned their limitations without quite figuring how to get beyond them.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.


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