Kobe Bryant tried. He defied all reasonable expectations Friday night and started for the Lakers despite a horribly sprained left ankle that would put mere mortals on the shelf for a couple of weeks.
So what did it matter that he played only 12 minutes, didn’t score a point and spent the final three quarters on the bench? In his absence, everyone else stepped up.
It might sound blasphemous, but without Bryant, the Lakers arguably played their best game of the season, using major contributions from a number of players to beat the Pacers 99-93 at Bakers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
“Man, this is an awesome win for us,” guard Steve Blake said. “Kobe gave us what he could, but he just couldn’t play through it and then everybody else stepped up. Dwight played huge, Steve, Metta, you name it. A total team effort.”
Total is precisely what it was, proving that if Bryant isn’t there, the Lakers still have enough weapons to beat many teams. In this instance, they got 20 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocked shots from Dwight Howard, 19 points from Metta World Peace, 15 points and 9 assists from Steve Nash and a combined 35 points off the bench from Blake and Antawn Jamison.
Blake had a season-high 18 points, made four three-pointers and added seven assists, four steals and just one turnover in 35 minutes.
Bryant gave it his best shot, warming up before the game and deciding to start. But after missing all four shots he took and avoiding any kind of contact while he was on the floor, he took a spot on the bench.
He made the best use of his time, diagramming plays on a coach’s clipboard for Howard and World Peace and looking every bit like an assistant. But the fact he opted to sit out clearly indicated how much he was hurting. The game marked only the third scoreless start in his 17-year career.
“I couldn’t post, I couldn’t back the guy down, I couldn’t put any pressure on (the ankle),” he told reporters after the game. ” … I just couldn’t move. It continued to swell.”
The Lakers don’t play again until a Sunday night game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center. Coach Mike D’Antoni indicated that any decision to try again will be left in Bryant’s hands.
If he can’t play, at least the Lakers know what they’re capable of doing without him. It’s a shared responsibility.
“Obviously, we want him back as soon as possible,” Nash said, “but we’re confident we can win without him.”
The beat the team with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, but it was pretty much a struggle. There were 13 lead changes and seven ties, and the Lakers shot dreadfully in the first half, making just 36.6 percent, although they were 8 of 16 on threes.
But in the final few minutes, they drained big shots. Blake’s three pointer with 2:55 left in the fourth quarter gave them an 87-85 lead, and then Howard scored inside and converted a free throw with 1:30 to break an 87-87 tie.
A three-pointer by Jamison and a slam dunk by Howard kept the lead. And even though Bryant did his best work from the sideline, he wasn’t needed.
That’s a thought the Lakers can carry with them down the stretch.