Team play outshines the individual

HOUSTON -- Basketball is a game in which an individual player can have more of an impact on the outcome than in any other team sport, but the most successful teams are never a one-man show.

In the lead-up to Thursday's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, however, all the focus was about a single player, Dwight Howard, and not the teams involved.

It was all about: How good are the Rockets with Howard? How much do the Lakers miss Dwight? How will Howard react to playing against his former teammates? How will his former teammates react to playing against Dwight?

And then the game happened and Steve Blake, the Lakers' eighth-leading scorer through the first five games, was the guy to play the hero, hitting a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Howard with 1.3 seconds left to lift L.A. to the thrilling 99-98 victory.

Hoops is just a funny game that way. Sure, everyone will remember LeBron James' consecutive Finals MVPs from the past two years when they talk about his career long after he's retired, but Mike Miller was the star of Miami's clinching game in 2012 and Shane Battier couldn't miss from 3 in Game 7 of the Finals in 2013.

Great players are considered great for a reason. On any given night they can take over and carry the rest of their guys, but what turns a collection of players into a unbreakable unit is when those other guys carry the great players every once in a while.

And when you rely too much on one player? He can let you down. The Lakers learned that lesson last season when they had what Mike D'Antoni described as an All-Star lineup and about as much cohesion as the real All-Star teams have when they're slapped together for a weekend every February.

The Rockets, the team considered loaded with talent compared to L.A.'s ragamuffin roster, learned it in the loss. Howard isn't actually Superman. Put him on the free throw line, where he went 5-of-12 in the fourth quarter when D'Antoni resorted to Hack-a-Howard.

On a night that was built up to be about the Lakers seeking revenge against Howard for leaving their franchise in the dust or about Howard seeking justification for his decision, it was L.A.'s team performance that was the story.

The first message Pau Gasol had to share after the game was that he was "proud of everybody's effort," and the Lakers showed that they "believe in ourselves."

Said Jodie Meeks, another unheralded player who actually led the team in scoring with 18 points, including a 3-pointer to cut Houston's lead to two, which allowed him to throw the inbounds pass to Blake and assist on the game winner, "I thought we shared the ball well."

And even Blake, who had every right to bask in the afterglow of his gut-check game winner, wouldn't take the individual credit. "I'm excited for us," Blake said.

For all of them -- Gasol, Meeks, Blake -- it was an "us," not a "them" reaction.

"To be honest, when we came back into the locker room it wasn't a 'We beat Dwight' thing at all," Steve Nash said. "We got a bunch guys who never played with Dwight and we're just happy we won a close game."

Winning close games has a way of bonding teams. Reveling in a teammate's success can be even more rewarding than experiencing your own.

The Lakers are clearly lacking in the superstar department from a year ago with Howard gone and Kobe Bryant still out with a torn Achilles, but they're lacking in the ego department, too. As D'Antoni has juggled an 11-man rotation, they've accepted their vacillating roles.

Why? What has changed? How are they able to function this way?

"We're not even thinking about last year," Blake said. "Just the team this year, we're pretty close. We support each other. We like to be around each other. And it's a good feeling when you have teammates like that."

Their teammates are also their competition for playing time, and playing time means numbers, and numbers mean money when 12 of the 15 guys on the Lakers become free agents next summer.

And yet, they are supportive rather than destructive.

"You can't really complain because you know how good the next guy is, and when it's his turn, you root for him," Blake said. "That's the way it's supposed to be. Hopefully, we can keep that up."

A team can also be a nice place to seek shelter, even for the great player on the losing end.

"Our free throws were terrible," Howard said, after shooting 5-for-16 (31.3 percent) while the rest of his team shot 28-for-36 (77.8 percent). "We just have to keep working."

Believe it or not, getting teamwork to click just right is often much more difficult than making an unguarded shot 15 feet from the basket.