In gritty win, Lakers lean on a reliable combination

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant was running on fumes. Pau Gasol had just a few more jumps left in his sore right foot. Antawn Jamison's sprained right wrist was throbbing after another hard fall. Steve Nash was still in street clothes because of a sore hip and hamstrings.

But whatever the Los Angeles Lakers had left was left on the court Friday night in a gutty 86-84 win over the Memphis Grizzlies that kept their playoff hopes alive another night.

"This is the big push for us," a weary Bryant said after logging another 42 minutes Friday. "It's a very tough stretch, but we're excited for it. If you're going into the playoffs, you want to go in playing the best teams.

"There's no point in being all excited to get to the first round to get your [butt] kicked. You want to be going into the playoffs feeling like you're playing well, playing against top competition, so you're ready for a No. 1 seed."

These are the most desperate times of the season for the Lakers. All the turmoil, all the drama, all the intrigue and dysfunction that has landed them in this ugly place -- fighting for their playoff lives with a roster full of future Hall of Famers -- all that is the past.

The last six games of the season ultimately will determine whether they go down as one of the biggest flops in recent history, whether they're just a garden-variety disappointment or, maybe just maybe, there's a little magic in there after all.

And fittingly, with their backs up against the proverbial wall, the Lakers relied on the 1-2 punch that led them to back-to-back NBA titles not so long ago.

Bryant and Gasol combined to score 43 of the Lakers' 86 points Friday. They made the big plays and the small ones. They facilitated for the rest of the team, they organized the offense, but mostly they just led the way.

"You've seen us run it over the years," Bryant said. "It really is unstoppable."

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, with just Bryant and Gasol on the court together (and Dwight Howard off the court) Friday night, the Lakers had a plus/minus rating of plus-46 over 12 minutes. With just Bryant and Gasol on the court this season (and Howard and Nash off the court), the Lakers have a plus-20.4 rating, the highest of any of their two-man combinations.

Due to injuries, it's a smaller sample size than their other two-man games. But because of their history together, and the implications for the Lakers' future, there's a significance to it.

"We're both knowledgable players. We both have high basketball IQs," Gasol said after scoring 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting against the Grizzlies.

"We've played with each other the longest, for sure. That was always a constant in the past. It seemed to work pretty well and I think it's just smart if we continue to do that. Not for ourselves, but for the rest of the guys."

Gasol is still troubled by the torn plantar fascia in his right foot. It gets progressively sore as the game goes on. But he's used to it by now.

And frankly, at this point, with just six games left in the Lakers' regular season and potentially his Lakers career, he might as well give what he can while there's still time to make a difference.

Friday night the Lakers needed everything he had. As is their custom, the Grizzlies' burly frontcourt of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol basically suffocated Howard inside by packing the paint.

That meant Gasol had to dominate from the high post with his deft shooting touch and playmaking ability.

"I think we're using him the right way," Bryant said of Gasol. "We're using his strengths. His ability to facilitate, his ability to shoot."

Bryant leaned heavily on Gasol on Friday. After playing all but 73 seconds of the past two games, he was gassed. Though he still logged more than 42 minutes, it was clear his legs were weary.

When he missed three shots at the end of the game, it was clear someone else was going to have to step up to help close out a win the Lakers had to have.

Enter Gasol, who drove to the lane for a tough left-handed layup with 1:36 to go that gave the Lakers an 85-84 lead.

The look on his face said it all. He was tired. His foot was hurting. But the ball went in, which is all that matters now.

"I couldn't really jump off my foot," he said. "But I just have to fight through it because we have only a few games left and we want to make a good run here."

It has been a strange couple of years for Gasol. He has been traded, not traded, almost traded, maligned, celebrated, injured, among several other jarring life events.

It hasn't been fun. And it hasn't broken him.

"It's been a couple interesting years, to say the least, but here we are," Gasol said. "We're happy we're alive, we're smiling."

And for one more night, they're still in it.