LOS ANGELES -- It went on just long enough for everyone to start drawing conclusions. And Kobe Bryant didn't help with all those camera shots of him enthusiastically grabbing a clipboard and coaching up his teammates from the sidelines in a nationally televised win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.
But let's be real. The Los Angeles Lakers might have won four straight games without Bryant. And yes, "Coach Kobe" is a fun storyline. However, after watching the way the San Antonio Spurs shredded a lifeless, rudderless Lakers team 112-91 on Tuesday night at Staples Center, there can be no argument the Lakers are a better team without Bryant.
This game meant a ton to both teams. The Lakers are trying to hold off the resurgent Clippers for third place in the Western Conference standings. The Spurs are trying to wrestle the top spot away from suddenly mortal Oklahoma City. But only one team played as if it were playing for something important Tuesday night: the Spurs, who got a sublime game from Tony Parker (29 points, 13 assists) and solid work from both Tim Duncan (19 points, eight rebounds) and Manu Ginobili (15 points, six rebounds, four assists).
The Lakers, well, they got decent games from Pau Gasol (16 points, seven rebounds) and Andrew Bynum (21 points, seven rebounds). But the Lakers needed a lot more than "decent" to beat the Spurs for the second time in a week with this much on the line. They needed what Parker gave the Spurs. They needed leadership. They needed one of their big men to dominate in the way Bynum did last week in San Antonio.
It's games like this in which that extra bit of moxie shows up. In which it can be the difference between winning and losing. Bryant doesn't always make every shot, but he is never afraid to grab hold of a game and try to win or lose it.
Say what you will about how he can bog down the Lakers' offense at times. But Bryant is the team's leader. The guy who always shows up. The guy who always puts up. And yes, the guy you opposing teams will forever have a hard time shutting up. There are times when he shoots the Lakers out of games. But you can count on one hand the number of games in his career in which he has disappeared on the Lakers when they needed him.
Bynum and Gasol both played well Tuesday. And truth be told, this loss really isn't on them. As big men, they can do only so much. The ball has to get to them before they can score. And too often during what proved to be a decisive eight-minute stretch in the second quarter, when the Spurs blew open a tight game with an 18-0 run, the ball never made it inside to either Gasol or Bynum.
That would be the stretch of the game after Metta World Peace, who had been doing an admirable job of controlling the pace of the game in Bryant's sted, was called for an offensive foul on Gary Neal and had to sit out with three fouls.
"When Metta was out, I think we lost control of the tempo of the game," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "They kind of sped us up, and we did not look like we had -- nor tried to get -- control of the tempo. We'd come down and take a one-pass 3-pointer or a no-pass 3.
"We kind of got out of character of the way we've been playing lately."
Without World Peace in the game, the Lakers looked frazzled. They turned the ball over at an alarming rate, and San Antonio capitalized with its run, most of which was in transition.
What does that have to do with Bryant being out? That's simple. He's normally the guy who controls everything for the Lakers. Who reads the game, adjusts to it and does what the situation calls for. Sometimes that means putting up 28 shots himself; other times that means feeding Bynum and Gasol to get the inside-out game working. But it always means dictating the best tempo for the Lakers to play.
"I think [Bryant] always makes a difference. Whether you win or lose, his presence is felt," Brown said. "He's a guy that can feel or understand tempo. He may not say anything to our guys, but the way he helps control it is he may run to the block and ask for it and get the guys to settle down.
"It kind of calms everybody down."
With Bryant out, those duties have fallen to World Peace and point guard Ramon Sessions, and as you might have guessed, it's not exactly the same thing.
"I know how to control the tempo because I've been a go-to player before," World Peace said. "The tempo is very important. It's more important than scoring sometimes. If you understand the game, how your tempo is, not the other team's tempo, your tempo, it makes a big difference. You don't even have to score the ball."
For the past six games, it has been easy to forget things like this. To look at the wins and the way the Lakers have played, and conclude that maybe they can win without Bryant running the show.
But six games is far too small a sample size. Far better to look back on what Bryant has done the past 16 seasons.
He leads; others follow. That proportion might get out of whack at times. He might do too much; his teammates might do too little. But in a game the Lakers need to win, they are always better off with Bryant at the front of the charge.