Before the Lakers' incredible era reached this unforeseen point of peril Wednesday night, their coach was being pestered about his latest book. This was the one that hadn't been written yet, the chapters of Phil Jackson's final season unfolding with every passing day but the actual idea of publication a ways off in his mind.
"The book is way, way, way down the road," he said with his trademark wryness. "It has no function, no form, no structure yet, no outline. Nothing."
What it might have, as it turns out, is a surprise ending.
Dallas delivered a devastating blow to the Lakers' quest for a three-peat at Staples Center, taking a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semifinals with a 93-81 victory. The outcome left the locals incensed about the plot twist and the notion of a 12th championship looking unlikely for the man who swears this stand will be his last.
The loyalists rained boos on their stunned Lakers late, none louder than the ones reserved for embattled forward Pau Gasol during his third-quarter stretch that served as the low point of his already-dark time. Hopeless fans headed for the exits long before the score would seem to dictate such dissonance, clearly fed up from either the sight of backup Dallas point guard J.J. Barea slicing through the nonexistent Lakers defense or the cacophony of clankers as Los Angeles shot 2-of-20 from three-point range and 11-of-20 from the free-throw line.
Jackson had started the evening wishing his team would be "a little more lighthearted about" its latest challenge because, well, "it's still a game." Find your place of Zen like he had in recent days, he was saying, perhaps through the sort of "comic relief" he had relied upon.
Afterward? There were heavy hearts and nary a smile in Laker Land.
Ron Artest was the only one taking out his frustrations before the game ended. He inexplicably clotheslined Barea with 24 seconds left and was promptly ejected as a likely prelude to a suspension. Andrew Bynum came with the verbal blow not long after, when the center, who has quietly become a willing and capable voice in the locker room, gave his candid assessment of a dire situation.
"It's obvious that we have trust issues, individually," said Bynum, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds but gave himself and "F [or a] D" because of his involvement in the disastrous defense.
"All 13 of our guys have trust issues right now. I think it's quite obvious to anyone watching the game. [There's] hesitation on passes, and defensively we're not being a good teammate because he wasn't there for you before. Little things. And unless we come out and discuss them, nothing is going to change."
Gasol, who had just 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting and was one of the many who couldn't contain Dirk Nowitzki (24 points on 9-of-16 shooting), did not agree.
"I don't think we have trust issues," he said. "You've got to be able to give that trust to your teammates. Once we feel that, [the Mavericks will] feel that. But right now, they're getting a lot of looks -- a lot of good looks, too many good looks, and they're penetrating our defense way too much.
"Obviously, 0-2 makes everybody upset. Us, and our fans. That's not what we wanted. That's not what we expected, but that's where we're at. Right now, it's time for us to stay strong and as close as we've ever been if we want to be able to be successful and get through this struggle."
Gasol would know, of course, because no one is looking more like the fall guy at the moment. After averaging 19.6 points and 11.1 rebounds while shooting 53.9 percent from the field in last year's postseason, he is now averaging 13.6 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting just 42.7 percent from the field this time around.
"He missed open shots, he missed a layup that was blocked at the rim because he didn't dunk it," Jackson said. "There are some things that obviously didn't look good out there for Pau, but he worked. ... He was one of the kids that looked tired tonight."
The Lakers continue to downplay the fatigue factor, not only from this season in which the target remained firmly on their back, but also the miles logged from three straight trips to the Finals. Whatever the reason, the mountain of evidence against them is now taller than Bynum and Gasol combined.
Jackson had already experienced an unwanted new experience, having seen his team lose the first game of a series twice in the same postseason after doing the same against New Orleans in the first round. Now comes this: Only three teams in NBA history have come back to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games at home.
"It's hard, but you can't possibly expect this to be easy," said Kobe Bryant, who had 23 points on 9-of-20 shooting. "If you want to make history, you've got to do historic things.
"I'm not shocked. I'm surprised, [but] I'm not shocked. We've been playing with fire the last three years, dropping games on our home floor. We finally got what we deserved and we're down two [games]."
The Mavericks, who used a 22-9 run between the late third quarter and mid-fourth to pull away, look primed to provide even more comeuppance. The book isn't over just yet, but the end may be near.