While no team has a better record than the Spurs (26-4), who already had 11 losses by this point last season, the Lakers (21-9) are off to a disappointing start. They opened 23-4 last season en route to the best record in the Western Conference and a second straight championship, but now they're at risk of losing 10 games by the end of December for the first time since 2007.
Los Angeles followed a 98-79 home loss to a sub-.500 Milwaukee team with a 96-80 defeat to Miami in a Christmas matchup that didn't live up to the hype. The Lakers were held to 14 points in the first quarter and trailed by double digits for most of the second half.
"It's like these games mean more to our opponents than they do to us," said Bryant, held to 17 points. "I think we need to get that straight -- play with more focus, put more (emphasis) on these games. I don't like it. ... We know what we're capable of doing, and that's part of the problem."
Bryant, averaging 16.8 points over the past four games, stressed the team must do a better job of working out its problems in practice -- something the Lakers tried to accomplish during two days off between the Heat game and this one.
"Individually, you have to make that decision on what's important," Bryant said. "The game has to be the most important thing. ... This is serious stuff. You don't just have two rings and say, 'That's enough. We're satisfied with what we've got.' I'm not going to let that slide."
The Spurs couldn't help but look ahead to this matchup even before their most recent game, a 94-80 win over Washington on Sunday.
"We talked about it this morning at shootaround; make sure we respect them and that we use this game to prepare for the Lakers," point guard Tony Parker said. "We have a big game against them, obviously, and we're going to have to match their energy. I'm sure they're going to come in and look to bounce back from their loss against Miami."
San Antonio, which had a 10-game win streak snapped in its previous game at Orlando, has won 10 in a row at home but faces a Lakers team which has won five straight road games.
The teams split four meetings last season, with Bryant appearing in three and averaging 20.7 points -- his fourth-worst mark against any opponent.
The bigger key to the series was the Tim Duncan-Lamar Odom matchup. Each veteran forward reached double digits in rebounds in every meeting, but Duncan outscored Odom on average 24.5 to 9.5 in the Spurs' two wins while Odom had a 17.5-11.0 edge in the Lakers' two victories.
Duncan has been playing limited minutes lately, averaging 8.7 points in the last three games. Odom has averaged 12.3 in his last three after scoring 19.1 per game through his first nine in December.
Odom has missed 17 of his last 20 3-point attempts, and the Lakers are shooting 27.3 percent from beyond the arc in their last four games.
"We have to go back and figure things out," Odom said after the Miami loss, "look ourselves in the mirror, understand what's going on, and fix it."