SAN ANTONIO -- Just for a moment, disregard the Los Angeles Lakers' disappointing record and the state of their dilapidated roster.
Imagine you told a Lakers fan before the season started, "Listen, you're going to play the San Antonio Spurs on the second night of a road back-to-back in early January. The Spurs will be riding a 10-game home winning streak at the time. The Lakers will hold San Antonio to just five points in the last six and a half minutes and will have five chances to tie it in the final 1:40 of the game with a 3-pointer."
What reasonable fan wouldn't accept that scenario? Sure, there were some immensely heightened expectations before the year began, but even the fan who in October was already eyeing spots along Figueroa Street to set up his lawn chair for the parade could rationalize that having five chances to tie up the perennially tough Spurs in the final two minutes on the second night of a back-to-back would be a pretty good deal to take.
Now, snap back to reality. The Lakers are 15-20. They've lost five games in a row after Wednesday's 108-105 loss to the Spurs. They are going to be without both Dwight Howard and Jordan Hill for at least the next two games against Oklahoma City and Cleveland and they could continue to be without Pau Gasol indefinitely if he doesn't pass his concussion test Thursday.
Even if L.A. had those players healthy and came into the AT&T Center riding a four-game winning streak rather than a four-game losing streak, there was no guarantee they would win. Given their current state of affairs, it was about as un-winnable a game as any. Not only did the Spurs come in tied with Oklahoma City for the most wins in the league with 27, they were also coming off an embarrassing road loss to the severely sub-.500 New Orleans Hornets so they had all the motivation necessary not to want to take one on the chin from the sub-.500 Lakers.
Rather than succumb to the reality, the Lakers just decided to give it a go.
"We played very hard and I think we figured a few things out," Kobe Bryant said after he turned around his own game with 19 second-half points after scoring only eight in the first half. "We still have to straighten some things out on the defensive end, but I feel like we competed and that was very important."
That they do. A night after Houston torched the Lakers by going 11-for-25 on 3-pointers, the Spurs did one better, going 12-for-25. A night after relinquishing 125 points to the Rockets, the Lakers still gave up 108 to the Spurs -- accounting for the eighth time in the last 10 games their opponent had gone for 100 points or more.
Yet, the Lakers' defense managed to show up in spurts. When they fell behind by eight in the first quarter, they clawed their way back to within four. When the lead swelled to 11 in the second quarter, they got it back down to three. When the Spurs pushed it to 17 in the third quarter, L.A. got it back down to eight. And when San Antonio had them by the throat, up by 16 with 7:07 to go in the fourth quarter, the Lakers forged that improbable rally on the strength of their defense that gave them a chance to tie it in the end.
Along the way they unearthed a gem of a performance from Earl Clark -- career highs of 22 points and 13 rebounds for the fourth-year player who had just 14 total points and 13 total rebounds all season before Wednesday.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni joked that the team was in store for some Darius Morrisanity or Robert Sacresanity to lift them while his trio of big men were out and lo and behold, Clark's 25-foot 3-point attempt at the buzzer fell just short and also turned the carriage back into a pumpkin in what already had been a glass slipper kind of night for him.
What did Clark say the key was to him going from bench fodder to having a breakout night?
"I just wanted to go out there and play hard."
What did the Lakers do for one night to rid themselves of the stench of underachievement and the weight of expectations?
They went out there and played hard too.
"I'm proud of their effort and I'm proud of them," D'Antoni said. "They fought and they fought last night against Houston. You can see the team getting some traction, but we're a long way away from smiling and don't need to until we can start a little better."
Just for a moment, imagine if they can manage to play this way when Howard, Gasol and Hill come back?
Then there'll be reason to smile.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.