Sans Bryant, the Lakers were initially liable to crumble. His 27.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game had carried them this far, and Los Angeles remains unsure if that is even enough.
Locked in a battle for one of the final three Western Conference playoff spots, the last thing the Lakers seemingly needed was less Kobe. Or worse, no Kobe at all.
Tinseltown's finest were and are barely holding on to the eighth seed as it is. No Black Mamba—even if for a few games—is then synonymous with no postseason berth.
Unless, of course, Bryant's absence was one they needed.
Implausible as the notion sounds when read aloud, it rings truer than any other lesson these Lakers have learned this season.
Kobe, in so many ways, is a crutch, a fixture that the Lakers can lean upon in any attempt to regain their composure. But his was a service that was being abused; he was a brace that couldn't support the ambitious aspirations of a superteam. He was the end-all on a faction that should have none.
He couldn't, and still can't, do it alone.
Los Angeles isn't your average, run-of-the-mill convocation. The Lakers are a $100 million product assembled around a quartet of superstars.
Operating without one of those superstars is far from ideal, but remove any one (or even two) of the four from the equation, and you should still be able to identify Los Angeles' formula for success.
Prior to Bryant's absence, the Lakers' rubric wasn't discernible without him. He had played in each of Los Angeles' first 66 games, lasted through the bedlam and snarls that came with losing, and led the Lakers back into the playoff picture.
Hollywood had been without Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, but not Kobe. He was (and in many ways, still is) the Lakers' lifeline.
Which is unacceptable.
Powerhouses aren't built upon the shoulders of a single man. Not ones that cost nine-figures annually to field. Their survival is predicated upon their alias as collective. Identifying themselves through the face and performance of one player borders on destructive. Just ask the 17-25 Lakers of nearly two months ago.
All year, even after wedging themselves back within the top eight of the conference, the Lakers were devoid of a suitable ipseity. They were led by one, when they really needed to play as one.
Still nursing a severely sprained ankle he suffered against the Atlanta Hawks, Bryant finds himself out of the lineup, and the Lakers find themselves better off because of it (via Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
But no, the Lakers are not a better team without Bryant.
They are a better team now because they've learned how to cope with adversity throughout this star-crossed season.
They are a better team now because that adversity seems to have brought them closer together, instead of ripping them apart.
They are a better team now because it finally got so embarrassing and humbling, they flat out had to change.
"Adversity" is not a foreign concept in the City of Angels. The Lakers have lived it, breathed it and died with it all season long. In each of those instances, though, they had Kobe.
From Nash's leave, to Howard's bouts with inconsistency and teetering morale, to a frail Gasol, the Lakers had Bryant. They've leaned on him, fed off him.
What they really needed to do instead of "feed" off, was trust one another. Bryant's stay on the sidelines, however brief, has allowed the rest of the team to find its footing.
In essentially two games without Bryant—held scoreless in one quarter against the Indiana Pacers—the Lakers have come together and identified themselves outside of their five-time champion.
Nash, who had become primarily a scorer, has balanced his point-totaling with his incisive passing. He's averaged 17 points and 10.5 assists over the last two games.
Steve Blake, an afterthought on the scouting report, has stepped up to anchor the second unit as a playmaker and floor-spacer. He's combined to put up 17 points and 7.5 assists on 64.3 percent shooting (9-of-14) from deep.
Metta World Peace, in the midst of one of the hottest Laker stretches he's had, has shouldered a bulk of the scoring burden in Kobe's absence. He' given Los Angeles an average of 21.5 points on 63.5 percent shooting (16-of-25) from the floor in the last two games.
Antawn Jamison has been no different. Brought to Tinseltown under the pretense he would serve as a spark off the bench, his 9.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game have been somewhat of a disappointment. Over the last two, he's upped the ante to 22 points and eight rebounds on 58.6 percent (14-of-24) shooting.
Then there's Howard, the effulgent face of the Lakers' future, which becomes brighter with each passing victory. He hasn't attempted to shoulder any more of the scoring burden in Bryant's leave, instead understanding that his role becomes more emotional.
Howard has combined to average 16 points, 14.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in the last two games, but he's also played the part of a crutch (Kobe's crutch), someone the Lakers can lean on and look to for guidance.
In Orlando, I was the guy that everything went through. I know that position. That’s why we all play. We play and I play because I want to put the team on my back and carry those guys to the Finals. That’s always been my goal, and I love having that on my back. Being able to just lead these guys -- that’s what I want to accomplish, and I just want these guys to have total trust in me.
Once again, Howard is "the guy" everything goes through. The offense, the defense—everything.
Free from the safety net that comes with playing next to Bryant, Howard is the leader of these Lakers. He is the one who sets the tone and carries it for the entire game.
And he needed this moment. The entire team did. They needed to understand that while Kobe originally fancied this his team, they will only go as far as the Mamba can carry them if they so choose. If they want, they can all carry this team together, and go so much further.
Yeah, it's just two games, just two victories, but it's two games and victories' worth of perspective.
Backs up against the wall, the Lakers didn't fold, they've thrived. Chemistry and, more importantly, trust is at a season high. They're a team of superstars playing together. Not battling against one another's styles, but catering to them, together.
Then the Lakers must be better without Bryant. If they're executing (49.6 percent shooting from the floor) over the last two games better than they have all year, Kobe is the problem.
Long after Bryant's assertion that this was his team, he understood where he went wrong. He began passing, began making sacrifices to ensure this team's survival.
He has handed out at least seven assists on 26 occasions (and counting), more than doubling the 12 times he did so last season. He understood it was going to take an aggregate effort for this team to win, for this team to contend.
What he couldn't do was make the rest of his teammates comprehend the gravity of his discovery. How could he? By telling them not to count on him? Purposely missing shots? Voluntarily sitting out?
Let's be realistic.
For some time, Bryant was deferring more than he shot, facilitating more than he was scoring. He embodied the role of a point guard when he's been renowned for his scoring.
He had this epiphany, long before anyone else. And he did all he could to ensure it resonated with them, but it was never enough. He was always there for them to look to, for them to lean on. For them to project assumptions toward.
Postseason within reach, suddenly Bryant's not there, and it's forced the entire Lakers team—Howard and Nash included—to pick up on the groundwork Kobe was laying, because he's no longer there to lay it.
"You've just got to roll with it," Howard said (via Shelburne). "Hopefully this is the last time this happens and we'll get healthy at the right time and stay healthy."
Hopefully when they "get healthy," the Lakers will also understand that they can and need to count on everyone else involved, just as much as they've always counted on Kobe.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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