Lakers shine even when Kobe doesn't

LOS ANGELES -- This time of year, I look at which teams can win on bad nights. Granted, it's generally something I look for in my NCAA picks, because in a single-game elimination format I like to see teams that can survive the off nights. For example, Kansas got a 63-62 Big 12 tournament victory over Oklahoma State despite shooting a combined 35-for-85 from the field and free throw line.

In the NBA, one loss won't wreck your playoffs. But substandard play from your superstar typically will, which is why it's worth noting that the Lakers' best stretch of the season hasn't coincided with Kobe Bryant's best play. In the first 10 games after the All-Star break, Kobe was down in the categories of scoring (from 25.1 points per game to 24.1), field goal percentage (46 percent to 43 percent), rebounds (5.4 to 4.2) and assists (4.8 to 4.4). Yet the Lakers won nine of those games, and they won again Monday, another victory against a quality opponent (Orlando) on another night Bryant was quite ordinary, scoring 16 points with five rebounds and four assists.

The story of the game -- as it's been throughout the Lakers' recent surge -- was Andrew Bynum. He grabbed 18 rebounds, blocked four shots and scored 10 points, and in my made-up SOBOA stat (Shots Over Bynum's Outstretched Arms) the Magic were 4-for-12. I don't even have a stat to describe Bynum's best sequence of the night, when he challenged Dwight Howard and forced him to pass, then challenged Jameer Nelson and forced another pass, causing a three-second violation against the Magic.

How about this concept: Bynum could be playing Howard off the West Coast. If Bynum keeps playing this well, do we really need to keep alive the notion that the Lakers should make a play for Howard, the potential 2012 free agent, knowing Howard would cost more money and demand more offensive touches than Bynum?

With every game, Bynum is further removed from that offseason knee surgery. With every game he's getting into better game shape. With every game he gets more positive reinforcement from his dedication to rebounding and defense.

"Since the All-Star break, people are trying to ask why we've been so much better, and I'll start with him," Derek Fisher said.

The other stats leader was Pau Gasol, who had 23 points and five assists. Next you'd have to turn to the reserves, who were on the floor at the start of the fourth quarter and stretched the Lakers' lead from five points to 16 in less than five minutes.

Only then would you get to Bryant, who missed 8 of 10 shots in the first half as he tested out the left ankle he severely sprained against Dallas on Saturday night. In the second half, much like the increasingly confident Bynum, Bryant had more faith in his ankle and made 5 of 9 shots to get to 16 points. Nevertheless, the sounds in Staples Center provided a telling reflection on this game: As Bryant and Bynum came out at the 3:37 mark of the fourth quarter, the louder cheers came when Bynum's name was announced.

The good news for the Lakers is that this isn't shaping up as a battle for the fans' affection and the bosses' approval, which is what tore the team apart when Shaquille O'Neal was here. Bynum is all about rebounding and defense right now -- which is a good thing because his one-on-one skills need refining.

"I have a role," Bynum said. "And it's easily identifiable. I can see it. That's what the coaches want from me, and that's what I'm going to try and do.

"It's really because I've realized that it's a way to get into the game without dominating the ball on offense. We have scorers on this team. It's just a way to keep your energy level high."

Apparently Bynum's emphasis on doing the nonglamorous work is spreading to the rest of the team, including Bryant. When Bryant denied a pass to Jason Richardson, sending the ball off Richardson and out of bounds, Bryant pumped his fist and then slapped himself in the head. I've never seen him get so fired about a routine defensive play in the middle of a regular-season game.

"We talked about doing things defensively," Bryant said. "Just getting in the passing lane, getting excited about that."

Fisher talked about the sacrifices that are required to play on this team. It's not the first word that comes to mind when you imagine playing with the champions in Los Angeles, but it's true. Being a Laker means giving up a spot in the starting lineup if you're Lamar Odom, giving up more money from another team if you're Shannon Brown, and giving up shots if you're anyone other than Kobe.

Even Kobe's playing time is down and his shots per game are at their fewest since Shaq, Karl Malone and Gary Payton were on the team in 2003-04. More than that, his impact is diminished as of late. He can still go for 37 points if necessary, as he did to get the Lakers an overtime victory in Portland on the second night of a back-to-back. But they've also won when he shot 8-for-22 against Oklahoma City and 6-for-20 against Dallas.

The more balanced the Lakers are, the tougher they'll be to beat. They had five players reach double digits in the scoring column Monday night, an occurrence that's coming with more frequency.

Odom's explanation for the balanced offense?

"Our defense," he said. "Everyone's exerting a lot of energy defensively; it makes you want to move the ball and share the ball. We're just sharing the ball, everyone's getting involved."

Offense springing from defense is a switch in Lakerland. Normally under coach Phil Jackson, the Lakers are about using their structured offense to dictate the pace of the game and to help them stay in good position for defense.

Still, not as unusual as Bryant's being an accessory instead of the essence of Lakers victories, the way he's been lately. Is there a better option to have as an option? He can still get you a big basket in crunch time. He can still pour in the points when he gets going.

But if they can win when he doesn't have to, it means the Lakers can still be champions after the season ends.