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.
Nash struggled from the field in the first half, shooting 2-of-7 for seven points. He finished with 15 points on just 5-of-13 shooting, but he did tally nine assists and even grabbed four boards.
In an odd scene at the end of the first half, Nash hit a jumper from above the foul line as time expired and was a split second late. But upon replay review, officials confirmed that the clock had started too early on the play. Kobe Bryant argued the issue much more vigorously than Mike D'Antoni.
L.A. was given the ball to inbound from the sideline with 1.5 seconds left, and there was a delay as the Pacers had to be recalled from the locker room and Frank Vogel argued the call.
Earl Clark fumbled the lob pass to make the clock error a moot point, though Lakers announcers Bill Macdonald and Stu Lantz thought that Nash's original basket after the buzzer should have been counted. It did not.
Kobe took to the court, but it was more of a "Willis Reed Game 7" kind of performance.
Bryant played the entire first quarter and was held out for the rest of the game. It didn't look like he had proper lift on his jump shot and he was sluggish on defense. Black Mamba missed all four of his shots to finish with zero points, two assists, a rebound and a turnover.
You have to credit Kobe's toughness to even make it on the court, as the sprain suffered two days ago seemed to be severe—especially based on the photo of his ankle taken by his wife and posted on Instagram (via ESPN's Beto Duran).
Time Warner Cable SportsNet cameras showed Kobe coaching up teammates on the bench, addressing the team in huddles and calling out double-teams to Dwight Howard, so he still impacted the game despite a bum ankle.
Metta World Peace attempted 19 shots in Wednesday's loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Even with Kobe sitting for most of the game, MWP limited himself to just 12 shots on Friday.
He finished with 19 points, seven rebounds (including four offensive), three dimes, two steals and a block. He also had four turnovers, but that's just Metta World Peace being Metta World Peace.
He got in some foul trouble early, with three in the first half, but he kept a clean slate in the second half.
With the Lakers struggling to start the third quarter, World Peace metamorphosed into Kobe Bryant and dropped seven consecutive points to get L.A. back in the game.
He tallied 11 points in the third, and that's scoring the Lakers desperately needed with the real Kobe on the bench.
Earl Clark had five points and a block in the first half, but he struggled to open the third quarter. The Lakers saw their five-point lead turn into a six-point deficit before they could blink.
Antawn Jamison substituted for Clark, and that's when Metta World Peace reeled off seven straight points.
Clark finished with eight points, six rebounds, two dimes, a block and a steal, but he also had the lowest rating on the team at minus-nine. The talented youngster will have to work on his consistency.
It was an up-and-down game for Howard, who finished with 20 points and 12 boards, but shot just 7-of-17 from the field and also committed four turnovers. Good thing he didn't foul out.
Dwight looked good for stretches of the game, especially on his back-to-back slam dunks midway through the second quarter, the first coming on a nimble spin move.
He also picked up three fouls in the first half and played only 10:24, but along with his seven points, he swatted four shots. That's just the sort of shot-blocking presence the Lakers needed against the Pacers' formidable frontcourt.
Howard had a strong showing in the third quarter, with six points and seven rebounds.
Dwight's biggest play of the night came when he completed a three-point play to break an 87-87 tie with 90 seconds remaining. He also threw down an emphatic dunk with 30 ticks left on the clock to seal the dramatic road win.
TV cameras showed Kobe Bryant looking proud.
Steve Blake was averaging just 4.9 points per game this season, but he hit a pair of treys and two free throws for eight first-half points. He also snatched three boards and dished four assists. He had a team-high plus-12 rating at the half.
Blake scored a season-high 18 points on 5-of-7 from downtown and finished with seven assists. Surprisingly, Blake was a central reason the Lakers hung in against the Pacers' stingy defense.
Blake brought his own stout D to Indiana, netting four steals and constantly harassing the ball.
It was sublime timing for Blake to break out on a night when Kobe Bryant scored zero points.
Antawn Jamison had a fantastic game. He posted 17 points and seven rebounds for some vital production off the bench.
Jamison's trey in the final minute stretched the Lakers' lead to six points, and he hit a pair of free throws shortly after that to help deliver the victory.
He proved to be a spark plug throughout the game, as he also knocked down three-pointers on consecutive possessions in the second quarter to extend the lead to 11 points.
Then, in the final 90 seconds of the first half, Jamison followed a three-pointer with an and-1. Even though he missed the free throw, Robert Sacre got the offensive rebound and hit a jumper for his only stats of the night.
Jamison's 11 points and five boards were both team highs in the first half as L.A. opened up a five-point advantage. He was also whistled for a flagrant 1 early in the fourth quarter.
Jodie Meeks struggled mightily, missing all seven shots he attempted. He did at least tally four rebounds and two steals, while his poor overall showing was offset by Jamison's great night.
Chris Duhon, Devin Ebanks and Darius Morris did not play, as Mike D'Antoni chose to go with a nine-man rotation.
The Lakers get a break with their next opponent on St. Patrick's Day, when they take on the 23-43 Sacramento Kings back home at Staples Center.