Hobbled by the aggravation of a sprained ankle, Kobe Bryant was limited to five points on 2-12 shooting yet the Los Angeles Lakers still managed to defeat a scrappy and defensive-minded Charlotte Bobcats team 99-97 on Wednesday night.
The past three games Los Angeles has played have been revealing in the sense that the Lakers were forced to abandon the the finesse brand of basketball they are known for, and rely on their toughness and inner strength.
This is important because although the Lakers may have the greatest collection of talent in the NBA, they have constantly faced questions concerning their passion, their toughness, and their courage under fire.
The assumed script on un-seating the defending champions says to put pressure on the point guard and constantly challenge the Lakers at the rim because they will eventually wilt under consistent physical play.
The continued development of reserves Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown has allowed the Lakers a reprieve at the point guard position, as both are athletic enough to stay with quicker guards, and Brown has the size to deal with bigger guards.
The duo will still face challenges down the road, but the trust the team has in Brown and Farmar is shown by coach Phil Jackson's decision to increase their minutes, especially when the game is in doubt.
So the main obstacle the Lakers will likely face is the theory that they are vulnerable to physical play and if you can keep the game close, and guard Kobe at the end, your chances of winning increase dramatically.
There may be some truth hidden in that line of thought, but Los Angeles took a huge stride in dispelling that notion beginning with their game against Boston on Sunday.
In that game Ron Artest set the tone with a hard screen on Kevin Garnett, which sent Garnett sprawling across the floor and staring up at Artest in disbelief. His look seemed to question Artest's audacity to pull such a stunt.
If Garnett was surprised by Artest's actions, then he was left in a virtual state of shock when Andrew Bynum took a pass in transition and posterized Garnett in a show of attitude by the young center.
They were just as spirited on the defensive end, adopting a strategy of allowing Boston point guard Rajon Rondo a free reign while refusing to let any of the other Celtics beat them.
It was a bold strategy and it worked because Artest played his best man-to-man defensive game since joining the Lakers, constantly harassing Paul Pierce and forcing the ball out of his hands while Bynum and Pau Gasol defended the rim.
It worked because Lamar Odom was being the defensive force he is capable of from time to time, and it worked because the Lakers bent their wills and refused to be out-toughed by the Celtics.
The loss on the road to an improving Memphis team is easier to swallow and digest because the Lakers were defiant till the end and until Artest's final miss of the game he had been perfect from the three-point line.
Which brings us to the game against Charlotte where Bryant was re-injured when Odom mistakenly stepped on his ankle and disrupted his rhythm for the rest of the game.
A loss to the Bobcats seemed inevitable considering they have beaten the Lakers in six of their past seven meetings, and seem just as comfortable in Staples Center as they do back home in Charlotte.
And the Bobcats were on the verge of disposing of the Lakers with Stephen Jackson leading the assault with 30 points, but the wills of players like Bynum and Odom would not allow that happen.
Bynum had a physical 17 points and 14 rebounds while Odom chipped in with 19 points and seven rebounds all while Bryant watched, reduced to a decoy by his inability to move comfortably.
This type of gritty attitude is what has been missing from the Lakers, and the ability of Bryant's team to step up and snatch the victory during his incontinence could bode well for Los Angeles down the road.
But the Lakers must be consistent in their efforts, and continue to play with pride in order to shatter the perception they are often victims to their own lack of sustained physical play.
If they can master this their road to a repeat becomes less challenging, because if the Lakers have the attitude and edge to pair with all that talent, there are few teams in the NBA which could compare.
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