For far too long, a relationship that was often considered fractured beyond repair was attempting to lead a team essentially in shambles.
Trying to reach the playoffs in the midst of tactical ambiguity and two superstars jostling for position both on and off the court, though, isn't plausible. Falling further than rock bottom, however, is.
That is exactly where the Lakers found themselves 42 games into season. Eight games under .500, rumors of internal combustion and advanced ataxia plagued an already mangled faction. Forget a playoff berth, sheer competency even seemed out of reach.
Then something changed.
The Lakers began to win; they began an arduous, yet suddenly tenable trek back to .500. Following an unsightly implosion against the Memphis Grizzlies, postseason hopes were restored and optimism wasn't a theory—it existed.
Yet even then, something was missing. As Los Angeles went on to win seven of 10 after a cataclysm in Memphis, something still just wasn't right. That something wasn't Pau Gasol's injury, either.
It was Kobe and Dwight.
If Bryant wasn't questioning Howard's toughness, Dwight was seemingly defying Kobe's will. The dyad's dynamic was fragile at best, and despite the winning, the Lakers seemed but one loss away from caving under the pressures of an uphill battle and an unacknowledged domestic war.
Deny it as both did, they weren't together (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
The first three quarters of the season played out with Bryant seemingly pushing his hardest because he knows he doesn't have much longer to play and Howard seemingly not wanting to push too hard because he knows how much longer he has to play.
There were conflicting agendas and personalities, enough drama to fill an HBO series and not enough wins to punch a playoff ticket.
These adverse volitions were evident from Day 1. Kobe openly declared the Lakers were his team. Eventually, they would be Howard's, but as long as his work attire was colored purple and gold, Los Angeles was his.
This never should have been about whose team it was, though. Super teams are about winning, unity and sacrifice.
Few would hesitate to consider the Miami Heat LeBron James' team, but they're just as much Dwyane Wade's as they are his. Miami wouldn't have won a title if LeBron and Wade were scrambling for organizational control. Synchronized agendas are what made that possible.
And that's what Bryant and Howard need to emulate—like they did in Los Angeles' comeback victory on the road against the New Orleans Hornets.
Down by as many as 25 points and clad with the knowledge that their season was billowing in the balance, Kobe and Dwight stepped up. Together.
Bryant led the offensive crusade, scoring 42 points and dishing out 12 assists while Howard overcame game-long foul trouble to hoard 15 rebounds, block four shots and force three steals. He pitched in 20 points on the other end as well.
Afterward, the magnitude of a harmonic performance didn't fail to resonate with either one of them (via McMenamin):
"We really complemented each other extremely well and played to each other's strengths," Bryant said after finishing with 42 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds. "I directed us offensively tonight, and he did his thing defensively."
Said Howard: "It shows we're coming together and we're not letting situations on the outside affect us. We're fighting through this and we got to do it together. Everybody in this locker room has got to believe."
Aggregative belief isn't possible if Kobe and Howard don't believe and don't trust in one another. They're the two most important pieces to this complex puzzle. They're the load-bearing beams with which this convocation is built upon. Void of concurrent success, of coeval aspirations, this structure perishes.
One is not enough—the Lakers need both.
Again, we're drawn to the come-from-behind display over the Hornets. Kobe's ability to score at will wasn't enough when Howard was on the bench for most of the second quarter with three fouls. The Lakers found themselves down by 19 at the half.
Fast forward to the third quarter and we saw much of the same. Howard picked up his fourth foul early on and his defensive impact was stifled as a result. Bryant's offense did little on its own, and Los Angeles headed into the fourth in an 18-point hole.
In that fourth quarter, though, Howard (still on the precipice of fouling out) defended more freely and, thus, effectively. His defense coupled with Bryant's offense allowed the Lakers to finish the game on a 20-0 run. Their complementary showings allowed the Lakers to emerge victorious.
But it can't stop there, in New Orleans.
Los Angeles wasn't staving off a playoff outfit in the Hornets, yet the mutual stylings of Kobe and Howard represent everything the Lakers need to become not just a postseason-bound team, but a threatening one.
A happy ending to Hollywood's season can't merely culminate in a playoff berth. The late Jerry Buss didn't shell out $100 million for the Lakers to revel in mediocrity. This team was meant to contend; it was meant to be great.
And the Lakers still can be, by following the blueprint that has been staring them in the face all season.
These Lakers are 7-5 when Kobe and Howard both score at least 20 points. Though it's a record that hardly implies utter preponderance, it's above .500, which is still more than we can say about Los Angeles overall.
Tinseltown is also 14-7 when Bryant drops at least 20 points and Howard posts at least 10 rebounds and two blocks. Here is a train we can board, and theoretically, should be able to board frequently.
Howard is averaging 12.1 boards and 2.3 blocks per game and Kobe is tallying 27.6 points a night anyway. Playing well above .500 shouldn't just be the standard then, it should be the reality.
As long as they do it together.
That the Lakers are 14-7 when Kobe and Howard simply hit their season averages is revealing of how important they are. That the team has struggled to break even, however, is a testament to their separation.
If their means coincided with one another, Los Angeles wouldn't be pining for a playoff spot, they'd be fighting among the Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets for home-court advantage in the first round.
No longer is this about what could have or should have been, though. It's about what can still be.
The Lakers can still contend with the best. They can still be elite. They can still make some noise and an inspirational run in the postseason.
So long as Kobe and Dwight recognize said run is predicated upon them playing, upon them leading together, anything is possible. So long as they realize their alliance in New Orleans is one that must remain constant and unwavering, nothing is out of reach.
"I'm just proud of how we did it together," Bryant said (via McMenamin) "That's the most important thing."
Fighting together has always been the "most important thing" for Kobe and Howard, for these Lakers.
And as long as they're teammates, it always will be.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted, and are accurate as of March 6, 2013.
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