The Los Angeles Lakers continued their best streak of the season with a dramatic comeback over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night at Staples Center.
Looking up at the monolithic arena board from my level-one box seat (ah, the perks of going to USC and having friends in fraternities and sororities) with the Lakers trailing late in the fourth, I had a good feeling about how the contest would turn out.
After all, the Lakers had won 11 of 12 games since the All-Star break and were starting to look like the two-time defending champions that we were expecting.
The unraveled script told a familiar story: Lakers trail late, get serious, Kobe takes over with a few brilliant shots and the Lakers dramatically snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Bryant was brilliant after entering with 8:53 left in the fourth quarter after a curiously long rest between quarters. He shot five-of-eight, including a ridiculous fadeaway over Brandon Roy, an impossible reverse layup and a high-arching short jumper to upstage Nicolas Batum's brilliant game for Portland.
The victory over Portland may not have been impressive, but it spoke volumes about how hot the Lakers are right now.
Here are the five biggest reasons why the Lakers, winners of 12 out of 13, are the NBA's hottest team.
Here are the Laker rebounding margins in the 13 games since the All-Star break:
+22 vs. Atlanta
+9 at Portland
-6 vs. Clippers
-3 at Oklahoma City
+14 at Minnesota
+1 vs. Charlotte
+6 at San Antonio
+5 at Atlanta
-9 at Miami
-5 at Dallas
+2 vs. Orlando
-1 vs. Minnesota
-10 vs. Portland
The Lakers outrebounded their opponents in seven of the 13 games, and in three of the six in which they didn't, they were within five rebounds of equal. During this span, the recently suspended Andrew Bynum has owned the paint, pulling down 13 boards per game.
Most importantly, Bynum has been effective at his strengths without encroaching on Pau Gasol's. Gasol is scoring efficiently over Bynum's dominant stretch, throwing up 18.4 points on about 52 percent shooting and more than nine rebounds.
If Gasol can be free to operate on the offensive end without getting his rhythm disrupted by Bynum and vice versa on defense, the Lakers will have huge margins in paint scoring and rebounding from here on out.
The biggest problem has been getting both bigs playing great concurrently while co-existing on the floor, and the ability to do that is one reason the Lakers have been so hot recently.
Matt Barnes returned on March 6 against the Spurs after missing 26 games with an injury. The Lakers are 6-1 since then, with the lone loss in Miami.
To measure Barnes' impact, we need to look at the positives in Ron Artest's defensive numbers caused by more rest. Artest is just under two steals per game since Barnes returned, which is up about a half-steal from his season average.
He's pulling down about one more rebound per game than his season average and has held Gerald Wallace to nine points, LeBron James to 19 and Marvin Williams to four during that span.
Barnes' contributions aren't correctly captured by the box score, because you won't find anything impressive by him there. His 13-17 minutes a game and tenacious defense are important to keep the Laker bigs from getting overworked.
The Lakers could throw any warm body in there to suck up minutes, but its nice when the body you throw in to spell your stars can grab a steal, defend and play with high energy off the bench. That is Matt Barnes' game.
This point is all about assists and the Laker willingness to pass, which hasn't exactly been a given with this team.
As individuals, no one on the Lakers averages more than Kobe's 4.7 dimes per game. As a team, however, the Lakers are a respectable 11th in the league with 22.0 helpers per game.
Over the last 13 games, the Lakers have failed to collect 20 assists just four times, and they shot 40 percent or worse in three of those four games. This is a strong indicator that the team's distribution of touches is satisfactory and that Kobe isn't shooting too much.
The Lakers are trending upward in assists since the San Antonio blowout. Since then, they've averaged 22.9 assists per game as the whole team has finally gotten a chance to play extended minutes together.
If the Lakers falter down the stretch in the regular season, the lack of sharing (and making open shots) will be one of the main culprits.
The Lakers have been locking down all season long, ranking seventh in points allowed, but have seriously ratcheted up their defensive intensity as they sense the playoffs nearing.
Since the break, the Lakers are allowing opponents just 87.9 points. They've allowed 100 points once, in an overtime win in Portland. In that stretch, they've allowed an opponent to exceed 45 percent from the field just three times. They've blocked 5.1 shots per game in the 13 games.
That defensive dominance is 2003-2004 Spurs-esque.
They say that defense wins championships. None of the five Laker champions in the 21st century have been predicated on defense, but stopping the opponent is starting to become the hallmark of this edition the Lakers, and it's great to watch.
...has been flipped.
Everyone talks about whether slumbering giants can "flip a switch" during the stretch run of an NBA season in preparation for the playoffs. Many say no, and such an idea really undercuts the competitive integrity of the players and teams.
Well, watching the Lakers over the last month makes it hard to disbelieve that a switch exists. The contrast of their dominance to the preceding three-month malaise is staggering, and suggests that the level of effort and concentration has been actively raised within the locker room.
Winning 12 out of 13 in their toughest stretch of the season after losing three straight horrific games immediately before? Really impressive run by the Lakers that has vaulted them to No. 2 in the West and the second fastest to 50 wins this season.
How can anyone deny "the switch" theory after that?
Three weeks is enough time for the Lakers to fall into a deep spiral again. As the playoffs start in a month, we might be talking about how bad the Lakers are, how poorly they've played recently and what they need to fix.
The point is to not overreact, even to a month's worth of games. There is still enough season left for trends to form or reverse, especially for an inconsistent team like the Lakers.
Phil has always known that the season is a marathon, and it's hard to overemphasize that fact even though we hear it all the time.
Time will tell whether this hot Laker stretch is their last one of the year, or if they'll dip again just in time to rise to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time.
For now, sit back and enjoy the suffocating Laker defense and on-court chemistry.