Kobe Bryant is a man of his word, and he'd like to keep it that way.
We're roughly two weeks removed from Kobe guaranteeing that the Los Angeles Lakers would clinch a playoff berth. Considered implausible at the time, the Lakers are 5-2 since his augury and have moved within 1.5 games of the Utah Jazz for the Western Conference's final postseason slot.
But Los Angeles isn't there yet.
Just 20 games are left to play for these Lakers and though the distance between them and a playoff berth has decreased, they're still on the outside looking in at the bubble.
Winners of 14 of their last 20, stepping off the gas is the last thing the Lakers can do. Their quest toward proving that the numbers can sometimes lie is a marathon that they also have to sprint through.
At the forefront of said footrace is Bryant. He has carried Los Angeles all season and despite his unconditional diligence, there's still work to be done and a precedent to be set.
Both of which need to be sustained as the Lakers finish out their turbulent crusade.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
The Lakers aren't going to make the playoffs if Kobe Bryant believes he has to do it all on his own. He needs Dwight Howard.
It was he and Howard who fueled Los Angeles' ability to erase an 18-point fourth quarter deficit against the New Orleans Hornets, and it will be them who must put forth similar efforts moving forward.
Comeback victories over lottery-bound factions are hardly season-defining moments, but the mutual understanding that was reached between Bryant and Howard in New Orleans is a tune Kobe must continue to carry.
In that particular victory, we saw Howard lead the Lakers' defensive charge (down the stretch) and Bryant shoulder the offense. That how it needs to be for a full four quarters; that's how it needs to be every night.
Los Angeles is 14-7 when Kobe scores 20 or more points to go with Howard tallying at least 10 rebounds and two blocks. While such a filter may not seem like much, it's important to understand that those are within the season averages of each player. Ergo, if they can put up their usual numbers simultaneously, the Lakers will win.
It's up to Kobe to be in Howard's ear. And it's up to him to listen to what Dwight says on defense. The Lakers may still be Bryant's team, but they won't become a successful, let alone dominant one, without a collective effort and understanding from these two.
Achieving and subsequently sustaining this balance could prove to be the difference between a playoff berth and Kobe not making good on his promise.
Kobe Bryant kills himself trying to score, because that's what the Lakers need. But they also need him to help instill a change on the defensive end.
In an era where stretch forwards reign supreme, Dwight Howard is frequently the lone defender in the post. While that increases the importance of him rotating and cutting off lanes to the basket, it also increases the significance behind Los Angeles' perimeter defense.
Too often Howard is forced to play off his defender to cover up a bad perimeter beat. And it shows.
The Lakers rank 23rd in defensive efficiency and have allowed the seventh-most points of any NBA team over the last 20 games. Including themselves, seven of the league's top 10 offenses come from the Western Conference. Those are the attacks Los Angeles needs to be able to stifle or at the very least, contain slightly.
Presently one of nine NBA teams allowing at least 100 points per game, the Lakers aren't prepared to do that. Recently, we've seen the Oklahoma City Thunder's top-ranked offense torch the Lakers for 122 points and watched as they also allowed New Orleans' 14-ranked offense to post 102.
Most troubling about Los Angeles' defensive lapses is that much of them come down to effort. The Lakers are among the sloppiest rotators in the league and rank 28th in points allowed in the paint (44.9).
Shoring up his own defense and helping Howard hold their teammates accountable is the quickest (and most efficient) way for Kobe to generate results.
It's also vital to the Lakers actualizing their postseason aspirations.
The Black Mamba has taken his offense to a whole other level.
Earlier in the season, Kobe Bryant scoring in excess was often considered counterproductive. Through his first 21 30-plus point performances, the Lakers were 7-14.
Bryant, however, has scored 30 or more in six of the last seven games. In those six contests, Los Angeles is 5-1.
But it's not just that he's scoring, it's that he's doing so efficiently. He's on pace to shoot 47.5 percent from the floor this season, the highest mark of his career.
His ability to remain potent (27.6 points per game) yet efficient is of the utmost importance. Bryant has shot 50 percent or better from the field in five of the last seven games, four of which five were victories.
Los Angeles is 17-12 on the season when Kobe hits on at least 50 percent of his shots as well. Far from great, yes, but a record that's worthy of a postseason appearance.
Which makes this a standard Bryant must continue to hold himself to.
During Los Angeles' recent stretch of 14 wins in 20 tries, Kobe Bryant has carried both the playmaking and scoring load on offense.
He's scored 20 or more in 13 of the 20 games and dished out five or more assists in 15. Against the Hornets, he joined Larry Bird as the only two NBA players over 34 to post at least 40 points and 12 assists in the same game (since 1985).
Bryant's volume scoring is nothing new, but this newfound balance between that of his point totaling and playmaking is.
With Kobe as a passing threat, opposing defenses are put in an essential no-win position. They can either double-team him and leave one of Los Angeles' shooters wide open or play him one-on-one where, let's face it, he's unstoppable.
And per Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, this is a decision Bryant knows he must continue to force teams to make:
Honestly, I was thinking I need to bring my teammates along with me. So I just kept telling myself at halftime, 'I got to bring them with me.' ... Because I was getting to the rim at the end of the first half and I knew I could score any time I wanted to, but I said, 'I got to bring them along with me.' I got to force the game upon them and hope that turns the tide.
Said train of thought must not waiver, because when Bryant gets his teammates involved, the Lakers are better off. They're 10-5 when he dishes out at least eight assists and 5-1 when he hands out 10 or more.
In other words, when Kobe passes, the Lakers win. Enough to make the playoffs even.
While this goes without saying, it's still worth saying.
Kobe Bryant has played through injuries his entire career, and this season has been no different. He's currently battling an ulnar contusion in his right elbow, a physical impediment that would sideline some, but not Kobe. Partly because he's a competitive freak and partly because, well, the Lakers can't afford to go on without him.
The Mamba has logged the most minutes of any other player this season. He's one of just 12 players in NBA history over the age of 34 to have averaged at least 38 minutes per game and the first since Gary Payton did so during the 2002-03 campaign.
Much of Bryant's extensive use is undoubtedly by choice, but his presence is also a necessity. Los Angeles' offense is better by 7.9 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and the team's effective field-goal ratio drops by more than two percentage points when he's off it.
We've always known that for the Lakers to win, they need Kobe. Condemn him as some may, there's no denying how important it is for him to be in the game.
If he and the Lakers are to deliver on his postseason promise, then remain in the game he must. No matter what.