As Kobe rests his actual back, the Lakers get his metaphorical one.
As the minutes ticked away before tonight's tip off, Kobe Bryant's availability, much less how effectively he could compete while saddled with severe back spasms, remained in question. Twenty-four hours earlier in San Antonio, the ailment reduced the Mamba into a garter snake. He described himself as "unable to walk" and was only able to reach "questionable" status after 'round the clock treatment. (Laker play-by-play man Spero Dedes noted before the game that Bryant started getting work at 5 am.) Most ballers would sit out, and the few that don't typically dial things back.
But we're talking about Kobe, rarely one to allow an injury to shelve him or deter a go at full throttle. Sometimes those performances while less than one hundred percent have been legendary, but lately, with Pau Gasol out with a strained hamstring, they've been arguably problematic. Shooting under 40 percent in January but still firing away (and often questionable shots at that), it felt like Kobe was risking a message being sent: I'll take my chances with a lousy hand than chance things to teammates not named "El" or "Spaniard."
Well, upon taking a seat on the bench after eleven minutes of run, Kobe had put up just one shot (a miss), picked up one foul and the remainder of his stat line was a string of goose eggs. At that moment, the tone for tonight's victory --the 3,000th in franchise history!-- was firmly established. Any concerns that Mamba would attempt carrying the Lakers on his bad back were put to bed. On the contrary, Kobe barely touched the ball, typically passing off the minute it touched his hand. Similar to throughout the entire second quarter as he laid on his back with heat packs underneath him, Kobe was more or less a spectator (albeit a spectator the Mavs couldn't afford to ever take their eyes off). His supporting cast was given the responsibility of heavy lifting and came through with a huge team effort.
In the first game resembling himself "pre-concussion" (and with a newly sprained finger of his own), Ron Artest wasted little time bullying ownership of the paint, whether muscling his way to the rack for layups (often at the expense of Josh Howard) or grabbing 11 rebounds to compliment 16 points. Lamar Odom has been an absolute monster on the glass these days, but was challenged by Phil Jackson to become more accountable offensively. Twenty shot attempts (eight good), the most put up since January 17, 2008 (Kwame Brown was still a Laker!), and 18 points to compliment fourteen rebounds would qualify as "responding in kind." The third member of "Club Double-Double," Andrew Bynum, was described by PJ as the team "rock." 22/11, plus countless shots altered at the rim. The bench was also key. Jordan Farmar chipped in one dozen points off the bench, including two icing freebies after getting fouled upon retrieving Howard's missed three-ball for the tie. Shannon Brown was good for six points and steal, plus quality minutes during second frame playing in Kobe's place. Luke Walton, whose pinched back nerve is only barely healed up, added a quartet of points and assists in just eleven minutes. Even cameo appearances from DJ Mbenga, Josh Powell, and Sasha Vujacic (nursing a strained hammy) bore meaningful fruit.
As for Kobe, he looked considerably more spry after halftime --PJ played him for 24 minutes rather than risk stiffening up with a break-- and began looking for his shot. But he played under control and without pressing the issue, maintaining the group flow that put the Lakers in position to craft their best win of the season. Given the teeth he gritted to play 35 minutes, it's only fitting Kobe canned the game-winner after a rare lapse of poor play down the stretch (as if the Lakers couldn't believe what they were about to achieve) quickly put the game in jeopardy. After all, it is Kobe Bryant and Lakers fans live to see him in the clutch. But one hero moment does not a "bail out" make, and I enjoyed seeing Kobe's cape minus the supporting cast tugging on it. They didn't need to after combining forces to play four quarters of smart, efficient, and conscientious basketball. On several occasions, I noted to Brian how win or lose, this would end up arguably the biggest game of the season, considering the circumstances. One that perhaps would emerge a defining moment when the dust finally settles (hopefully with a June repeat).
I also couldn't help but think about the last meeting between the Lakers and Mavs, arguably the last quality game L.A. has played before tonight. You wouldn't know it from the 131-96 score, but the purple and gold actually faced some tough issues that game. No Artest or Walton, with Gasol soon to tweak his hammy. Plus, they were mired in a funk and facing a Mavs squad that'd already beaten them at Staples. As I noted after the blow out, this Lakers crew has a tendency to rise to challenges. The bigger the hill, the more willing and able their climb. Tonight served as a well-needed reminder during a January littered with mediocre play and injuries galore. Character matters when games truly start to matter. They may not always display it, but when the chips are down, I like this team's collective character.
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