SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It was a historic night for Kobe Bryant.
He passed Wilt Chamberlain, one of the true legends of the game and an almost mythical man from Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia, for fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
It was a heroic night for Kobe Bryant, too, at least by basketball standards.
A game after needing a crutch to exit the arena in Milwaukee because he “couldn’t walk” on his left foot (because the bone spur inside of it had become so inflamed), the 34-year-old Bryant played all but 23 seconds in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 103-98 win over the Sacramento Kings.
Both the micro feat of what he did on Saturday and the macro feat of what he did on all those Saturdays -- and Sundays and Fridays and everything in between -- before it are worth celebrating.
“He'll be talked about as one of the greatest,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game.
He most certainly will.
But the thing about Bryant’s game Saturday that will give the Lakers a chance of doing something significant the rest of the way won't be Bryant's piling up eye-popping point totals or his action movie star-like resistance to pain.
It will be the impact he has on his team, on the game, when he doesn’t do those things.
Bryant had 14 assists -- the same number he put up in consecutive games in late January when L.A. finally cut the crap and started to play decent basketball consistently for the first time all season -- and it trickled down.
“We have guys that will step up if everybody will trust everybody,” D’Antoni said. “The key is when it happens like that on offense, you see the energy on the defensive end. That’s where it comes out, and we were a team tonight and it looked good.”
It’s a simple formula.
Bryant passed, and in turn, so did Pau Gasol (10 assists), and in turn, Dwight Howard got plenty of touches (14 shot attempts, 10 free throw attempts), and in turn, Howard played like a man possessed on defense and the boards.
“I just felt Dwight’s activity was really the big game-changer,” Bryant said, doling out praise with the same generosity with which he dished out assists. “His offensive rebounds in the third and fourth quarters really keyed the rally for us.”
Counting the Kings game, the Lakers now are 11-6 this season when Howard gets 10 shots or more from both the floor and the free throw line. Howard’s rebounding and blocks numbers in those games? Thirteen boards and three rejections, so there’s certainly a correlation.
The other thing Bryant didn’t do was play those 23 seconds at the end of the third quarter.
D’Antoni took him out when there was a timeout, throwing Darius Morris in the game so Bryant could get a little extended rest before the fourth quarter started.
Bryant had told D’Antoni at the end of the first quarter that he wanted to play the whole game.
“Mike looked at me [to sit to start the second quarter], and I said, ‘Nuh uh,’” Bryant said. “I’m going 48 tonight.”
It was a tough-minded gesture, but it also was one that could be construed as selfish: I’m going to tell the coach how much I play and I’m going to play the whole damn game.
When D’Antoni took Bryant out at the end of the third, Bryant said he didn’t ask for it but agreed, “It made sense.”
It goes back to D’Antoni’s quote about passing: “Everybody will step up if everybody will trust everybody.”
Even if D’Antoni is the offensive “genius” Bryant declared him to be when L.A. hired the coach, D’Antoni will not be worth a damn on the sidelines if his players don’t trust what he’s asking them to implement.
Just like Steve Blake wouldn’t be able to fill in for the injured Steve Nash with 15 points or Jodie Meeks wouldn’t be able to be plugged into the starting lineup for Metta World Peace and score 14 points if their teammates didn’t trust them to shoulder the load left behind by Nash and World Peace.
Rather than Blake and Meeks just being fillers out there so L.A. had the requisite five men on the floor as Bryant or Howard or Gasol looked at it as an opportunity to gobble up all those shots that used to belong Nash and World Peace, they were incorporated and relied on to contribute just as much as the so-called stars.
It was the same trust that had the Lakers sticking to the game plan after giving up 37 points in the first quarter and trailing by 12, instead of letting doubt creep in that they needed to change things.
"Basically we were just saying, 'Stay with what we're doing,'" Blake said. "Because we were communicating really well; they were just knocking down shots. I mean, they shot the ball incredible. We figured if we could continue to talk like that and communicate and play hard, they'd eventually start missing. That's what happened."
That's what needs to continue to happen over the final eight games of the season if L.A. is to have any hope of sneaking its way into the playoffs.
Otherwise the only thing truly historic about this season for L.A. will be the 2012-13 Lakers being one of the biggest busts in professional sports history.
And there's certainly nothing heroic about that.