SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On a rainy night in the old barn that Kobe Bryant loves because it reminds him of high school as much as it does some of his greatest games as a pro, the L.A. Lakers gave the NBA something nearly as pure as those innocent days.
Remember when you trusted your coach, loved hanging out with your teammates and just felt right with the world when your team won?
The Los Angeles Lakers certainly do.
The Lakers rallied from a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter—roaring to life when Mike D’Antoni went Bobby Knight on them at that low point in a 20-second timeout—and beat the Sacramento Kings on Friday night in Sleep Train Arena.
The Lakers’ locker room was filled with smiles and good-natured ribbing in every corner afterward. The game had been played just hours after Bryant’s self-aggrandizing “THE LEGEND CONTINUES” Facebook video announced his hugely anticipated return from the Achilles tendon tear would come in the Lakers’ next game Sunday.
And the question becomes: After the Lakers have showed themselves to be a winning team without Bryant (10-9), will the ultimate Laker, so often criticized for selfishness, now introduce disease…or find the established harmonious teamwork infectious?
Pau Gasol, who got the double-wide, stand-alone “star” locker near the fridge that surely will go to Bryant next time the Lakers inhabit Sacramento’s visiting locker room, had been able to grind through his ankle pain to make plays at both ends at crunch time.
With his meek 42 percent shooting this season, Gasol hasn’t been able to carry the team, but his teammates have helped him get by, and he has been their valuable voice of reason.
“This group is just really playing together,” Gasol said. “Really good chemistry. It’s been really fun so far, because guys are just giving their all. It’s not about individual play or individual performance.”
And Gasol, who knows Bryant better than anyone does in this group, hinted that he already knows the answer to the 30-million-dollar question (that being Bryant’s league-leading salary this season in a league that focuses so relentlessly on individual stardom—especially his individual stardom).
Who will Kobe be, a singular force of his own nature…or one of the guys? A set-apart superstar about whom Robert Sacre said, “He definitely has a different presence”…or a leader who knows how much these guys’ limited games will benefit from him creating opportunities for them?
Bryant has already tipped his hand in team practices, according to Gasol. Yes, Bryant has been “very vocal, energized,” Gasol said. There’s more, though.
“He has been a much more willing passer than he has been before,” Gasol said, “and that’s been great.”
Bryant has a legend to continue, as the overly dramatic video of his torn No. 24 jersey symbolized, so he absolutely has an individual agenda. But he also understands the game better than almost anyone, and he accepts that his job is to make everything easier for everyone.
If Bryant brings the right energy to the group, that’s all it will take for the pulling to stay in the same direction. Speaking for these mostly young players who mostly idolize Bryant, Gasol said of Bryant stealing back his usual thunder: “Everybody has a big adjustment. Everybody understands that.”
D’Antoni isn’t minimizing Bryant’s return either, saying he expects “that he’ll be a dominant player.” But D’Antoni capped what was probably his best night of coaching the Lakers with the right message about the alleged “savior.”
With Bryant back home in Orange County, D’Antoni made it clear in that postgame locker room that they don’t need to be saved. They’re winners without him.
“They don’t need to stand around and watch him play,” D’Antoni said. “They need to compete like they did tonight.”
They got considerable help from D’Antoni, who further established his penchant for emboldening role players to increase production.
Sacre got a surprise start and was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder when he went for his first rest. Prioritizing defense, as D’Antoni has demanded, Wesley Johnson had a career-high five steals, including the big one down the stretch. After 13 points and 10 assists, Steve Blake has at least 10 assists in eight of his past 11 games—a latter-day mini-Linsanity while Steve Nash creaks in the background.
But the big turnaround came when D’Antoni lit into the guys for inattentive and uninspired defense. In keeping with the theme of the coach and his players feeling truly connected, D’Antoni’s answer was interesting when I asked how calculated the tactic that triggered an 11-0 Lakers run was.
He said he could get results by jumping on them—and venting for his own sake—because they care so much about doing the right thing.
“You can because they’re good guys,” he said. “I think they needed to get shook a little bit. Mostly, I’m out of my mind and I just go with it. There’s not a lot of thought there; I just want to kill somebody at that point. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
“But it’s them. They responded. It’s been a fun group to coach. And now we just got to get better.”
Bryant is better, in all the ways that saying, “THE LEGEND CONTINUES” conveys.
Yet first, let’s give his teammates a salute before he makes his debut Sunday, because they’ve accomplished something with all their teamwork and by not skulking through these Kobe-less days with some lame “we’re not worthy” mindset.
Now they’ve put the pressure on Bryant, which he always loves people to do. They’ve put the pressure on him to keep them winners. They’ve put the pressure on him to maintain this chemistry.
If it goes awry, it’s not going to be Dwight Howard’s fault anymore. It’s going to be, “Hey, weren’t the underdog, no-name Lakers fun and inspiring until Kobe came back?”
The legend continues, but Bryant had better be ready to continue the love affair this team has created without him.