Lakers excel in underdog role

SAN ANTONIO -- The Los Angeles Lakers as underdogs?

Something just doesn't sit right when considering the concept.

Then again, Charlize Theron convincingly playing an unattractive woman in "Monster" didn't seem to make a lot of sense on paper until you actually saw the movie.

The Lakers came into Wednesday's game at the AT&T Center against the San Antonio Spurs without Kobe Bryant and with a paltry 13-16 road record. The Spurs came into the night with every member of their big three ready to go after taking a night off against Utah, and also with a league-best 23-4 home record on their side.

The Lakers were the decided underdogs, and it actually worked for the team with 16 titles in its franchise history and one of the top five highest payrolls in the league this season.

Los Angeles routed San Antonio 98-84 without Bryant on Wednesday, stretching its lead to as many as 26 points in the fourth quarter.

"They played great and beat us to death," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.

They also beat the Spurs to the boards, controlling the glass 60-33, with Andrew Bynum nearly matching the Spurs' rebounding total on his own with a career-high 30 rebounds.

It was fitting that Bynum's performance was the most memorable of the night, because he has been the poster child lately for a Lakers team that reeked of entitlement in the past couple of seasons.

Bynum shot just 7-for-20. He said after the game that he'll "remember shooting horribly" before he reflects on the significance of joining George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor as the only Lakers to grab 30 boards in a game (Shaq never did it). But rather than being derailed by his offense, Bynum dug down and kept pursuing the ball on defense, blocking two shots to go along with all those rebounds.

"You like when they come out with the right focus and physical [nature] to pay attention to the game plan and the opponent and try to play the game the right way," said Lakers coach Mike Brown, who was playing the underdog role himself, matching coaching wits against his mentor, Popovich.

There was underdog Metta World Peace pouring in a season-high 26 points on 10-for-15 shooting after being cast off as amnesty-clause material in the offseason.

There was underdog Steve Blake backing up his solid eight-point, four-assist night against New Orleans with 10 points and 3 assists against the Spurs after hearing "They should have traded you instead of Fish!" for weeks.

There was underdog Pau Gasol putting up his third straight 20-plus-point game in Bryant's absence, assuming a true leadership role and willing the team to play with a purpose after being called washed up during last season's playoffs and nearly shipped out of town in the vetoed Chris Paul deal.

There was underdog Ramon Sessions continuing to flourish as the starting court general for this group after being relegated to a backup role his entire career.

Maybe the Lakers -- owners of the third-best record in the West and the fifth-best record overall in the league -- aren't underdogs in the traditional sense, but they're not favorites either, with the likes of Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami out there.

It's a good thing, too. The Lakers clearly grew weary of wearing the favorites crown last season. Being preordained to capture their three-peat championship and send Phil Jackson off into the sunset with title No. 12 became too much to take. They've been freed by the burden of expectations this season.

The jerseys with the bull's-eyes on the backs have ended up in their opponents' locker room from time to time instead of the Lakers having to don them every night.

Having Bryant come back into the fold healed from his left shin injury undoubtedly changes things. Bryant is supposed to win championships. That's his legacy. Or at least that's how his legacy is perceived.

But even Bryant has embraced the underdog role, taking pleasure in proving critics wrong as he improbably leads the league in scoring as a 33-year-old in his 16th season.

With a healthy Bryant joining a group that is playing defense like it did Wednesday and pounding the ball inside through Bynum and Gasol on offense, maybe the Lakers are indeed favorites in actuality once again.

"I don't really think we're underdogs," Bynum said. "I think we're still the team that people don't want to see."

If the Lakers continue to play like nothing is owed to them, like they did against the Spurs, Bynum will be right on both points.