The 2012-13 NBA season has been a rollercoaster affair for the Los Angeles Lakers, as the star-studded roster crashed and burned early only to rebound down the stretch and vault back into postseason contention.
With seven victories in their last 10, the Lakers have been playing some of the team's better basketball of the season, but Kobe Bryant's absence the past week due to the flu and ankle soreness had to have been a major cause for concern.
At 34, Bryant's health will always be a concern to the Lakers' brass, but at such a critical point in the season, his return to the starting lineup was desperately needed.
And it appears that on Friday, that's what Mike D'Antoni will get (per ESPN.com):
The return of Gasol and Bryant, coupled with Steve Blake recovering from the flu, means that Friday's matchup with the Wizards will be just the third game all season the Lakers' core group of those three players along with Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace have been healthy enough to suit up and play together.
"It's good to have [Gasol] back," said Howard after shootaround. "When he was out, it was tough for guys like Earl [Clark] and Antawn [Jamison] to really defend in the paint because they're usually good perimeter defenders. So having another guy back there is going to be good for the team. Now those guys get to go back to their normal positions and do what they do best.
So now that Gasol, Bryant, Howard, Nash, World Peace and Blake are all in the lineup together for the third time all season, the Lakers really have no excuses if they fail to make the postseason.
Sitting just a game-and-a-half over Utah, who has a game in hand, the Lakers cannot afford to drop a second straight game, and the Wizards certainly represent something of a trap game.
That's because ever since John Wall returned from knee surgery, Washington has been known to knock off NBA heavyweights, because in reality, the Wizards have been out of contention since November, so they're simply playing with no pressure on their shoulders.
Bryant has been the engine that's driven the Lakers' bus all season, and he'll have to continue to do that if he's going to will them past the first round, let alone the postseason itself.
He's done everything that D'Antoni has asked of him this season, he's pushed his teammates and he's helped direct what looked like a sunken ship back into contention.
That's why the team needs him on the floor tonight.