Mamba? I will never doubt you again. What was I thinking last week when I said he should take the week and rest his ankle?
So, let’s take a look back at the last week in Laker-land.
In come the Orlando Magic for a Monday night game at Staples. And there is Bryant suited up and ready to go. Unbelievable. You could tell he was not quite at 100 percent, but he was out there.
Lakers fans: We are so lucky to have him. He is a ferocious competitor and it's that kind of attitude that keeps everyone on the team accountable.
The Lakers end up beating Orlando, while Dwight Howard ends up looking frustrated and the purple and gold keep rolling.
Next up? Minnesota on Friday night.
It’s kind of bittersweet when the Timberwolves are in town because there still exists genuine fondness by the Lakers for Kurt Rambis, the Minnesota's coach and former Lakers assistant. Everyone likes former Bruin Kevin Love as well.
The Timberwolves had some nice energy and were staying in the race with the Lakers, until at some point, someone must have reminded the Lakers that it is late March, not January, and now is not the time to lose to Minnesota.
The Lakers buckled down as Kobe got into more of a rhythm and the Lakers got the win. Oh, and Andrew Bynum got ejected for his hard foul on Michael Beasley. The league subsequently decided that the consequence for that “play” would be a two game suspension...without pay.
Bynum’s wallet is $250,000 lighter right about now. Ouch.
So now we roll around to Sunday night at Staples. The opponent is Portland, which for some reason the Lakers have historically struggled with. Kobe is in the lineup again—you know, because twisting your ankle 90 degrees a week earlier is not that big a deal.
The guy is unbelievably tough both physically and mentally. You couldn't tell he was 100 percent in the first half, but he stepped it up in the second. That baseline fade shot he hit near the end was ridiculous. He popped his jersey and was fired up.
Hopefully the kids watching can’t lip read.
Anyway, back to the start of the game. This was the first game of the two game suspension for Bynum. The odd thing is—the Lakers just seemed out of sorts without Bynum out there. Nobody was getting into the paint, and they were letting Portland hang around.
The reason I say it is odd is because the Lakers play without Bynum on the floor all the time. They did it at the beginning of the year when he was recovering from his knee surgery. They do it almost every game when he rotates out for rest or because of foul trouble.
Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom know perfectly well how to pick up the slack. This was some kind of mental hiccup. At any rate, they found their footing in the second half and Matt Barnes electrified the crowd at the end of the third with a full court heave that somehow dropped for a much needed three.
Then Kobe got in a groove late, as did Derek Fisher, and the Lakers took care of business and put fear in other playoff contenders’ minds. If that’s how they play missing Bynum and with Bryant on one leg, then this is the top team to fear in the playoffs.
Matt Barnes (Bruin!) had a nifty little postgame interview. Of course he was asked about the half court shot that went in. He joked that the team practices those, and bets on the outcome. Was he kidding? Who knows?
But the best bit of insight he gave was that at a certain point during the game, he turned to his teammates on the bench and gave them a little pep talk about how the bench needed to pick up the tempo and energy and contribute more.
I like this bench. I think I like them better than last year’s bench, which was overshadowed to an extent by the Ron Artest experiment (maybe that should be Artest’s next CD title!).
I think this year’s group has really embraced the fact that for most of them, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to win a championship. I think they are all very aware of that. They know they are fortunate, and they also know the pecking order.
Plus, there is not a single thing wrong with being part of the bench. Just like there is not a single thing wrong with winning best supporting actor or actress, it’s a team effort.
If it weren’t for the bench coming in to rest starters, change matchups and often inject an eager “how can I contribute tonight?” vibe, this might not be a championship team.
The Lakers are a pretty amazing chemistry experiment in that regard. It’s served them well so far.
So, here’s my favorite take to wrap up the week, as captured by Mike Bresnahan in the LA Times, ”After the game, the Lakers found out that they had clinched the Pacific Division as well as a playoff spot."
"Bryant was ecstatic to hear it. 'No, not really,' he said in a monotone voice. Who would debate him? The Lakers (50-20) don't care about division titles.”
And that’s what you have to love about this organization: Any season that does not end with a championship is considered a failure. Those are some high expectations.
The Lakers wouldn’t have it any other way and neither would their fans.