A player I think should finish in the top three in the NBA's Most Valuable Player voting played a quarter, missed all four shots, and his team won its first top-tier road game of the season. Seems contradictory, right?
Well, not exactly. The Lakers' 99-93 win in Indianapolis against the Pacers was probably the team's best win of the season. Put the emphasis on team. While Kobe Bryant is the engine that drives this team, even the best cars need the remaining parts to be in working order. Tonight was the first time that the bulk of the components on the floor did that together.
Dwight Howard did not have his best game (foul trouble, under 50 percent from the field, four turnovers), but he played with energy, blocked shots (four total) and produced when it mattered. His 20 and 12 will be best remembered for the three-point play that gave the Lakers the lead for good at 90-87 with 90 seconds remaining.
Steve Nash was the distributor many expected upon his arrival. He didn't shoot great, but he played a great floor game with nine assists against just two turnovers.
For one night, Metta World Peace looked like rugged Ron Artest, circa 2006 defensively. He held David West to eight points, scored 19 points, hustled, took bad shots and basically was the whirling dervish of old on the court.
But the major difference was the bench, namely the tandem of Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison. Blake was fantastic. The easy choice for the player of this game, Blake had 18 points and seven assists and six rebounds, which alone would be great for a reserve.
Or most starters.
But the major factor was Blake's play defensively. He had four steals and two blocks but seemed to be in the middle of everything when he was on the floor. It was definitively his best game as a Laker and an extension of his underappreciated play of late.
Complementing Blake was Jamison, who was big-time in the fourth quarter and finished with 17 points overall. His four three-pointers all came at timely points in the game, with the last essentially icing the game with under a minute to play.
And yes, this game was won without Bryant and Pau Gasol. There are two things I take away from the game. One, the Lakers have a legitimate nine-man rotation when Gasol returns, regardless if he starts or comes off the bench.
But more importantly, the Lakers are legitimately dangerous. It is important to note that during this stretch (now 19-7 in the last 26 games) that has put them back into the postseason, three of the losses came on the second game of a back-to-back when the team tired in the fourth quarter. Those losses against Phoenix, Denver, and Atlanta were all winnable.
Why is that relevant? Because in the normal postseason scheduling, there are no back-to-backs. This team will have normal rest and recovery against whomever they face, assuming the Lakers finish this run and officially make the playoffs.
The reality is, Los Angeles has played with a common purpose, and the result has been wins. But tonight was the first time this team showed it can be elite on the court and not just on paper. And the Lakers did it without their best player by playing with four quarters of effort.
Combine those elements with a little health, and you have the makings of a team that can finally fulfill some of the promise many hoped for it in the summer.