The Los Angeles Lakers traveled to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday night for a tussle with the Indiana Pacers. The Lakers' gritty effort carried them past the No. 2 seed in the East by a score of 99-93.
Indy had been 26-7 at home, while the Lakers were "2-16 this season on the road against teams with a winning record" (per ESPN Stats & Info on Twitter). The matchup did not look good to say the least.
L.A. fans got great news before the game when they learned that Kobe Bryant would play despite severely spraining his ankle on Wednesday. But the Black Mamba struggled through the first quarter and looked decidedly gimpy. He missed all four shots and sat for the final three quarters.
In Kobe's absence, Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison picked up their superstar with 35 points off the bench; Dwight Howard added a team-high 20 points. Indiana's George Hill led all scorers with 27.
The Lakers played solid defense in the early going. They trailed by 11 after nine-and-a-half minutes, but that was because they had scored only eight points.
They got it going as the team realized Kobe was far from 100 percent, and two Dwight Howard free throws handed them a lead early in the second quarter.
The Pacers kept it close with 10 offensive boards and 22 points in the paint; they trailed the Lakers, 46-41, at halftime.
Both teams shot poorly in the first half. Call it good defense, poor shooting or a bit of both, but Indy was 30.8 percent from the field, while the Lakers shot 35.7 percent. The big boost for L.A. came on 8-of-16 from downtown.
The Lakers looked lackluster to open the second half, but Metta Word Peace came to the rescue by scoring 11 points in the final seven minutes of the third.
Blake and Howard each scored seven points in the fourth to power the Lakers to a stunning victory. Kobe had been addressing the team in huddles during timeouts, and his beaming smile looked like that of a head coach who had just pulled off a big upset.
Indiana came in with the best defense in the NBA, allowing the fewest points per 100 possessions. The Pacers also play at the pace of molasses, averaging the fifth-fewest possessions per game in the league; the Lakers, by contrast, play at the fourth-highest pace (via ESPN).
L.A. began Friday in eighth place in the West and only three games out of sixth. With the Utah Jazz nipping at their heels, the Lakers need to nail down as many wins as they can.
After finding themselves with an 18-25 record on Jan. 25, the Lakers have gone 16-7 and surged into the playoff picture. But they will need a healthy Kobe down the stretch to have any hope of improving their playoff position.