Pau Gasol returns but Kobe Bryant hits only eight of his 25 shots

Looking to make a statement, the Lakers found only question marks in a season already overcrowded with them.

Their latest effort to turn everything around coughed and sputtered in the final minutes of a 99-90 loss to the Miami Heat.

It was ugly in the end: Dwight Howard airballed a free throw, Steve Nash hit the side of the backboard on a scoop shot and Kobe Bryant couldn’t straighten out his shot, finishing with 22 points on eight-for-25 shooting at Staples Center.

The Lakers (17-22) possessed only a handful of signature victories coming into Thursday — Golden State, New York, maybe Brooklyn. Few things would have looked better atop a comeback résumé than a victory over the Heat (26-12).

It will have to wait.

The Lakers just don’t belong in the same sentence, much less the same paragraph, as the defending NBA champions.

LeBron James ripped through them for 39 points on 17-for-25 shooting. Dwyane Wade added 27 points on 11-for-20 shooting.

Stat of the night, if not the Lakers’ season: Miami had 68 points in the paint, the Lakers had 28.

Bryant made only three of 16 shots going into the fourth quarter, but his three-pointer tied the score at 90-90 with 2:33 to play. The Lakers didn’t score again.

Instead, Howard came undone at the free-throw line, Nash didn’t come close on an up-and-under move and James punctuated the loss with a six-foot pull-up with 49 seconds to play. He then slapped the outstretched hands of a few courtside fans as he ran downcourt.

“It’s a tough game,” said Howard, who had 13 points and 16 rebounds. “For the most part we played hard and we fought for 48 minutes and we just came up short. We’ve got to stick together and stay strong.”

The Lakers finished with 20 turnovers. The Heat had only six.

The Heat’s weakness had been a 9-9 road record. They were nothing but strong Thursday.

The Lakers actually led at halftime, 45-44, despite a ridiculously sloppy 16 turnovers and only four points on two-for-nine shooting from Bryant.

The goal was definitely to feed Howard, who made three of four shots from the floor and four of seven free throws.

Bryant lamented not being a bigger part of the early action, saying it “won’t happen again.”

“I allowed myself to be too much of a decoy,” Bryant said, adding he should have been “more aggressive from the start.”

His shooting increased and also worsened in the third quarter. He turned it around briefly in the fourth quarter but couldn’t help the Lakers pull it off.

Pau Gasol had 12 points and four rebounds in his return to action after missing five games because of a concussion. He came off the bench because Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni wanted to ease him back into the lineup after being out since Jan. 6.

There were other reasons too.

“We’ve played a certain way for five games and you’ve got the defending champions coming in and they play smaller,” D’Antoni said, “so it’s not something you want to force without knowing what the answer is. I would rather start off just looking at the team we’ve looked at the last two or three games and then have him. He’ll be a big addition for us.”

Gasol came off the bench for the first time since the 2004-05 season and only the seventh time in 822 NBA games.

He doesn’t want to do it again.

“I’ve been a starter my entire career. I think this is my first game as a Laker coming from the bench. It’s not something that I would enjoy, I think,” Gasol said.

The Lakers are in trouble, in case the previous 38 games didn’t prove it. Game No. 39 was a lot like the rest, it turned out.

Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan

Times correspondent Eric Pincus contributed to this report.