After Shaquille O'Neal left Los Angeles, Kobe searched for help but came up empty-handed for a couple of years. Then Andrew Bynum started to play better, Derek Fisher returned to Lakerland, Lamar Odom improved and the Lakers were able to pull off the trade of the decade to acquire Pau Gasol.
Three straight NBA Finals appearances and two consecutive titles later, the importance of teamwork proved itself.
When last year's playoffs approached, there was a different feel in the air. The Lakers got through the first round not looking like themselves, which all came to the forefront in the second round against Dallas.
Despite the sweep, the Lakers fanbase has high expectations every season. This is to be expected when the team has 16 championships.
This season has been unique and interesting to watch. A new and debatable coach, an aging team, a struggling bench, inconsistent play and a weak point guard position that was addressed at the trade deadline have all added to the mix of an up-and-down season.
However, Kobe Bryant has remained the constant that fans have come to know for the past decade. He is once again leading the league in scoring with 28.1 points per game and remains the best closer in the NBA. Kobe has led the Lakers to the third seed in the Western Conference for the majority of the season.
Early this month, Kobe suffered a left shin injury, technically called tenosynovitis, that eventually sidelined him (via Yahoo! Sports). Understandably, the Laker fanbase held their breath when they heard that Kobe would be out. Things didn't look any better when they were blown out by the Suns in Phoenix with Kobe in street clothes and a walking boot on the bench.
Yet not being able to depend on Kobe may have been just what the Lakers needed to close the regular season. Since last Saturday's loss against Phoenix, new leaders have emerged on the court and in the locker room. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Kobe on the bench handing out the right advice at the right time.
Per the Los Angeles Times, Metta World Peace stated:
Kobe's not playing right now, so it's definitely a comfortable situation to be a leader. I'm in better shape now, so I can actually show that I've improved. And then when Kobe gets back, I'm definitely assisting him. I'm the second-oldest guy on the team.
According to Yahoo! Sports, Pau Gasol remarked:
I'm one of the anchors - when (Bryant) is not there, even more - so I get a lot more involved in the offense. I'm not trying to be the main guy here. We have a great team and some great weapons. ... I just picked up a little bit the role of scoring and being aggressive offensively just because, obviously, the absence of the top scorer in the league.
During Bryant's absence, Metta World Peace is averaging 16.8 points on 59 percent shooting. Pau Gasol is averaging 22.5 points and 10.8 rebounds. Andrew Bynum is averaging 21.8 points and 16.8 rebounds. Off the bench, Steve Blake is averaging 6.3 points and 2.8 assists, and Matt Barnes is averaging 12 points, 2.8 assists and 7.8 rebounds.
The Lakers have balanced their offense on the stat sheet but have been led by Gasol, Bynum and World Peace each game. They have been tested as leaders and contributors at the most pivotal time of the season. The starters and reserves' confidence is high, but it has been up and down for the entire season.
The Lakers had a huge win over San Antonio, which only proved that they are contenders even without their biggest star. The past few games haven't been pretty, but that has been a recurring theme for the team this season.
Despite this, the Lakers are 3-1 without Kobe.
Now the question is, can they keep it up when Kobe returns? If the answer is yes, they may have a reservation at the NBA Finals.
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