No pain, no gain.
The gain? A gritty 92-83 win over the Brooklyn Nets in L.A.'s first-ever appearance at the Barclays Center Tuesday night in front of a raucous, pro-Purple-and-Gold crowd.
A remarkable result, to say the least, given all the pain involved. Dwight Howard was out of commission with a partially torn labrum for the third time in as many games. Metta World Peace was nowhere to be found after incurring a suspension from the league office for an altercation with Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Knight on Super Bowl Sunday. Kobe Bryant, too, was troubled by Knight—an elbow sprain, in his case (per Mike Trudell of Lakers.com).
And if all that weren't enough coming in, Pau Gasol left in the fourth quarter with an injury to his right foot. He'll undergo an MRI before the Lakers' next game against the rival Boston Celtics Thursday.
Despite what the final score in Brooklyn might suggest, the Lakers paid a heavy price for their absentees. The Nets pounded them on the boards, 52-40, including an astounding 20-5 edge on the offensive end.
Brook Lopez was particularly devastating on the interior, racking up 30 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks amid L.A.'s crumbling front line.
But the Lakers held the Nets scoreless over the final 2:32 while pouring in 10 points of their own. They let the Nets beat themselves with turnovers and low-percentage shots.
It was a massive result for the Lakers at nearly every level. They played with a combination of heart, toughness and determination rarely seen in this most trying of seasons. They banded together to beat a quality opponent on the road despite coming into the game with a 9-18 record against playoff-bound opponents and a 7-16 mark on other courts.
They won their third in a row (10th in a row over the Nets) and sixth in seven tries to move to within three games of the .500 mark. A mark that, for much of the 2012-13 campaign, these Lakers have chased with all the coordination and courage of the Knights of the Round Table...the Monty Python version, that is.
And, if not for a fourth-quarter, post-Dwight-injury collapse against the Phoenix Suns, they'd be a perfect 4-0 on their annual Grammy road trip, which, this year, has been branded "make or break" for this team's playoff hopes.
But is it possible that this swing could do both? That is, could the Lakers' season be simultaneously made and broken by the time they return to L.A. to take on the Suns on February 12? Made by victories, the fires of which forge a more unified, cohesive team going forward. Broken by the frailties of their biggest and oldest bodies, along with that of their most volatile mind.
What's to become of the Lakers if Pau has to miss more time with a foot injury? And/or if the pain in Howard's shoulder persists to the point that he's banished to the operating table? Jordan Hill's already lost for the season with a hip injury.
That leaves the Lakers to fill their frontcourt with Robert Sacre, Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison.
Still, the optimist in me won't pipe down. The optimist seems to think that, if ever there were a team equipped to persevere through this endless adversity, it's these Lakers.
After all, they've been stuck in a Sisyphean uphill battle from the get-go. They stumbled through a winless preseason. They watched Steve Nash go down with a leg injury on Halloween and stay down for another 25 games. They shook their heads as Steve Blake followed suit with an abdominal injury of his own.
They witnessed the firing of Mike Brown after five games and the subsequent hiring of Mike D'Antoni despite the pleas for Phil Jackson from all corners of the known basketball universe.
They saw Pau spend eight games in street clothes with tendinitis in his knees and Howard shuffle in and out of the lineup with his bum shoulder.
They've seen Kobe Bryant score efficiently, then shoot wildly like his old self, then swap roles with Steve Nash.
They've seen Gasol and Howard gripe to the media about this and that, and Antawn Jamison do the same.
They've seen Darius Morris and Chris Duhon play starters' minutes when neither has any business playing any minutes in the NBA at all. They've seen Earl Clark prove that he does deserve starters' minutes, with some Jeremy Lin deja vu.
Along the way, they've seen their championship aspirations—once all but assured—smashed into a fine powder and blown away by the winds of the real world. They've seen those hopes and dreams replaced by the stark reality that they'll need to fight tooth and nail just to play past mid-April.
In other words, the Lakers have seen it all, and the All-Star Game is still a week-and-a-half away.
They've played without Howard, Gasol and Hill already this season, so that won't be anything new. Kobe's battled through injuries far more worrisome than the one currently afflicting his elbow. And, well, at least Nash is still standing.
(*Knocks on wood)
Not that any of these qualifiers make the task at hand any easier for the Lakers. The ongoing rash of injuries has only made L.A.'s path to the postseason more perilous, not less. The team can ill afford another misstep or another lost body—not with the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz firmly entrenched at the tail end of the Western Conference playoff picture.
But that's been the case for the Lakers for weeks now. They've learned the hard way that they can't simply rely on the scope of their top-tier talent to overwhelm their opponents, if only because their Big Four has hardly had the privilege of playing together.
They've learned that they have to bring it every night, and for a full 48 minutes, lest they let another precious opportunity for a step forward slip through their tenuous grasp. They've learned that there is no success without sacrifice, no glory without guts, no victory awash in vanity.
Now more than ever, it's time for these Lakers, with a wounded Kobe in command, to put these lessons to good use. It's time for them to face down another, even bigger obstacle (a future without their superstar centers) knowing that their chances of triumph are slim as is, but are even slimmer if they don't stick together.
No pain, no gain.
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