With the road to the playoffs running parallel with the Utah Jazz, every game of late has been the most important game of the season for the Los Angeles Lakers, including Wednesday night's matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers.
This one started out with the stuff nightmares are made of for Lakers fans at the Rose Garden. There was absolutely no defense, shots weren't falling and Portland made three-pointer after three-pointer. The Trail Blazers had a 10-2 lead that became a 22-12 lead less than six minutes into the first quarter.
It was obvious early on that defense wasn't an option—we were going to see a shootout between Damian Lillard and Kobe Bryant for the duration. By the end of the third, it was a two-point game (90-88, Portland) with Kobe up to 39 points and Lillard keeping pacing at 34.
Down the stretch, Los Angeles didn't exactly move away from Kobe, he merely was no longer the lone option.
Pau Gasol turned into Steve Nash, Dwight Howard made his alley-oops, and Steve Blake did his best Moses Malone impersonation, getting huge offensive rebounds in the final minutes for Los Angeles.
Kobe scored a season high (and the high mark for visitors in the Rose Garden) with 47 points, and the Lakers took home the crucial 113-106 win.
Stat Line: 8 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 3-of-4 shooting
With Steve Blake starting in place of Steve Nash, the Lakers simply needed him to run the offense at a consistent pace when he had the ball in his hands and stand over in the corner and hit a three-pointer or two.
Blake was key in the fourth quarter, streaking to the rim and putting up a layup to tie the game at 100 on a goaltending call, and then stripping Damian Lillard of the ball, leading to a clear path foul soon after.
He then landed two key offensive rebounds to help Los Angeles extend their lead late.
Blake had a fine game that turned into a very good one after the fourth quarter. He hit on two of his three three-pointers in the contest, had a few solid passes and played terrible defense against Lillard.
To be fair, however, anybody would have played terrible defense against Lillard Wednesday night. To give Blake a bit of credit defensively, he was able to force a couple turnovers and bad decisions against Eric Maynor.
Stat Line: 47 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks, 14-of-27 shooting, 18-of-18 free throws
Though utterly predictable with everything he did, Kobe was simply unbelievable nonetheless. Everybody knew when he was going to shoot (which was all the freaking time), yet they were powerless to slow him down.
At one point he even received an "M-V-P" chant from normally hostile setting, as a ton of Lakers jerseys were peppered throughout the Rose Garden crowd.
He drove to the rim, hit jumpers, took bad three-pointers, played bad defense and got to the free-throw line ad nauseum.
Kobe Bryant is a perpetually doomed star, about to implode, and all he does is burn brighter, in his perpetually flawed way. It's amazing.— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) April 11, 2013
To give him a bit of credit for his defensive game, Kobe forced turnovers and blocked a few shots, which was really more than anybody else could say for the game. Hell, he combined for seven blocks and steals.
He had the usual lapses that have become such the norm for him this season, but his playmaking was on point.
Stat Line: 3 points, 1 rebound, 1-of-3 shooting
Los Angeles basically played three starters, one super-starter (Kobe literally played every second of this one) and used Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, Metta World Peace and Jodie Meeks interchangeably as a four-man bench that had to start somebody.
With World Peace just recently coming back from knee surgery, he wasn't going to play a ton of minutes, so Clark got the start.
In a pretty subpar game overall, Clark didn't score much at all and never really worked his way around to pick up an open jumper or find an opening to streak to the basket.
Of course, when Kobe Bryant is scoring a ton of points and Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are holding up their side of the canopy, it's going to be hard to come by many buckets.
Stat Line: 23 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 blocks, 11-of-15 shooting
For the second straight game, the Lakers went to Pau Gasol in the post with regularity, and the result was rather peachy.
With the Lakers falling into a rut early on in the fourth quarter, constantly deferring to Kobe, the Trail Blazers took a five-point lead. Kobe realized that Gasol was getting loose with LaMarcus Aldridge covering him, and he started feeding the big Spaniard.
Gasol scored 10 of the Lakers' first 14 points in the fourth quarter, and the floor started to open up for Kobe.
While he did most of his scoring in the fourth, Gasol spent the first three periods playing point-forward from the post. He looked like George Mikan playing the pivot out there.
Gasol spent the first three quarters getting the ball in the high post, faking a move to get closer to the rim and forcing the defense to collapse to find a jump shooter, or getting it to Dwight Howard across the lane.
The result is a near-triple-double for the second time in three games and one of his most complete games of the season.
Stat Line: 20 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 blocks, 9-of-11 shooting
While Pau Gasol was definitely the superior big man on the night, Dwight Howard did just enough to put together a fine game.
Howard was constantly in position to get a pass from Gasol in the post and across the lane, and he picked up his defensive game in the fourth quarter, completely shutting down the paint.
Once Howard's defense ratcheted its way back up, Portland was forced to decide between shooting jumpers or receiving a horrible, face-altering block.
Through the first three quarters, Howard was constantly out of position, allowing his man to drag him out of the lane and leaving the Lakers back door wide open. Players got into the lane and became dunk-happy quite early.
On the other side of the floor, Howard was completely on point. He tossed down at least three alley-oops and took the mass majority of his shots from inside the restricted area. He was also able to display a nifty little left-handed hook and pick up some key offensive rebounds.
Stat Line: 5 points, 3 rebounds, 2-of-5 shooting
Incredibly depleted and used sparingly, L.A.'s bench didn't really do much in the team's win.
Antawn Jamison was the sixth man purely by default, as he scored the most and had the most rebounds.
Jamison played just 15 minutes, and I suppose it was a fine 15. But there's not much to say about his game Wednesday night.
Stat Line (including Jamison): 12 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 steals, 5-of-13 shooting
The Lakers bench combined to play just two more minutes than Kobe Bryant, so I think it's safe to say that it's hard to understate their unimportance on the night.
When Jamison peaks on the bench with five points, you know there's not much going on with the guys on the pine.
World Peace did have a nice steal and Jodie Meeks added two steals of his own and a three-pointer, but nobody ever got into a groove to make an impact.
It seems as if that was the plan all along, and it might be the plan for the final three games of the season.