Lakers must forge a new identity without Kobe
The Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room had several conspicuous
absences Sunday night. Kobe Bryant was at home in Orange County
after surgery on his torn Achilles tendon, and Steve Nash hasn’t
played in seven games.
Also absent? Doom, gloom – and any sense the Lakers are finished
Although Bryant’s season is over, Dwight Howard insists the
Lakers’ fun has just begun.
”This is a great opportunity for myself and this team to show
who we are,” Howard said. ”We’ve got to give it everything we’ve
got. We’re going to fight to the end and do our best. Despite
whatever has happened this season, we’ve got a chance to win this
next game, go into the playoffs and make history.”
The All-Star center radiated quiet optimism after the Lakers
rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the powerful San Antonio
Spurs, putting them on the brink of a playoff spot. Eighth-place
Los Angeles needs only a win in its season finale Wednesday against
Houston – or a loss by Utah in either of its final two games – to
clinch another postseason berth.
Although the buzz was respectfully tempered just a day after
Bryant’s surgery, the Lakers’ excitement at their persistent,
well-rounded performance against a top opponent was impossible to
suppress. Without the ball-dominating, sublimely talented guard who
has defined the franchise for most of his 17-year career, the
remaining Lakers emerged with confidence they can excel without
Kobe – even if the rest of their season is only a couple of weeks
”This is a great opportunity, so there’s no need to get down
about it,” Howard said. ”This is a great opportunity for us to do
something special and make believers out of everybody.”
Even after everything that’s gone wrong for the Lakers’
star-studded roster this season, Bryant’s abrupt loss seemed over
the top. Perhaps that’s why the Lakers still absorbed it with grace
– and why a team that’s on a 27-12 roll since late January believes
it can keep going.
”We have character,” Pau Gasol said. ”We have players that
won’t give up, that won’t quit. We’ve been through quite a bit this
season, but we’re still here, and we’re going to continue to be
here as long as we can. We’re going to fight for our life every
game. Now we have to figure out how to play at our best with the
guys we do have.”
Mike D’Antoni suggested one of the Lakers’ problems has been
their excess of ”alpha dogs,” or players who are used to being
the star of their own show. Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol, Metta
World Peace and even sixth man Antawn Jamison have been the most
important players on their own teams at various points in their
careers, and D’Antoni thinks they never had time to learn
complementary roles after the new coach arrived early in the
Bryant’s absence changes just about everything for the Lakers,
who obviously run their offense through the ball-dominating guard
currently third in the NBA in scoring. Howard is the biggest star
in Bryant’s absence, but he insists everybody must assume part of
Kobe’s enormous responsibilities.
Howard knows he must score more aggressively, and he knows he’ll
get more shots from better spots. The Lakers already are working to
get the ball quickly into the low post to Howard, who went
aggressively at Tim Duncan and the Spurs’ big men from the opening
Gasol plans to assume more leadership and playmaking duties,
particularly while Nash is still out of the lineup. His two
championship rings give him added credibility.
While Jodie Meeks can’t match Bryant’s scoring punch while
stepping into Kobe’s starting spot, he must be a consistent
perimeter threat and a strong defender.
And when Nash returns to run D’Antoni’s preferred schemes, he’ll
immediately be the Lakers’ most important ball-handler, no longer
deferring to Bryant.
Steve Blake was the biggest beneficiary of Bryant’s absence on
the perimeter Sunday night, scoring 23 points against the Spurs.
The backup point guard already has a heavy workload in Nash’s
absence, and he hit four 3-pointers while getting four assists.
”Kobe is a dominating player,” Blake said. ”He’s going to
have the ball in his hands, and you’re going to want to play
through him. I think (against the Spurs), everybody had a green
light to show what they can do. I think we all took advantage of
Bryant assumed a playmaking role for long stretches of this
season, but also seized chances to roll up big offensive
performances, such as 47 points in Portland last week. He was named
the Western Conference’s player of the week on Monday even after
missing the Lakers’ final game of the week.
The Lakers can’t duplicate Bryant’s play, but Howard is eager to
assume more leadership for the rest of Los Angeles’ season. An
unrestricted free agent this summer, Howard sounds comfortable at
the center of the Lakers’ new order.
”I watched Kobe all year,” Howard said. ”I watched a lot of
the things he’s done with this team, and just he’s not one of those
guys who’s going to get in the locker room and be vocal. He’s just
going to do everything on the court. That’s where he shows his
leadership is just by how hard he plays, how hard he trains. Other
guys are the vocal guys. I believe I can do both.
”I’ve been trying to do that for the whole year, and now with
Kobe out, I understand that I have to do more and be more for this
team. This is a great opportunity for me, and I believe I can do