No Kobe Bryant, no Andrew Bynum, no problem. The Los Angeles Lakers won their second straight game without their injured leader, and did it in convincing fashion—disposing of the San Antonio Spurs 101-89 on Monday night.
In the absence of their hobbled superstar, the Lakers are learning to depend on each other—and the results have been encouraging, as each member of the supporting cast has been forced to place faith in their own talents.
In Portland, it was Ron Artest leading a group of six Lakers in double figures, as Los Angeles ended a losing streak which dated back to 2005. And against the Spurs it was Pau Gasol delivering a virtuoso performance that was again backed up by the strength of his teammates.
It is accepted as truth that the Lakers have the most talented roster in the NBA, but that fact is sometimes lost in the midst of the constant scrutiny of the media and fans which seems to coalesce around Bryant.
Gasol's 21 point, 19 rebound, eight assist, and five block performance served as a reminder that the Lakers are much more than a one man show, and when you throw in the performances of Lamar Odom and Artest the point is driven home.
It should come as no surprise, since all three aforementioned players possess superstar qualities, but they often find themselves leaning on Bryant to bail them out of tough situations.
And even though Los Angeles has maintained a decent margin for error in the Western Conference, there have been whispers that Kobe's play, especially since being injured, has been detrimental to the team.
In fairness, it did appear Kobe may have pressed a little in order to understand the limitations of his various injuries, but it would be ridiculous to assume his play was in any way damaging to his team.
Bryant is a passionate and aggressive competitor, and until recently his teammates had failed to reciprocate those qualities. When the Lakers failed, the blame was quickly shifted to Bryant.
Observers were swift to discard the multiple games which Bryant had won solely on the wings of his clutch ability, or the evolution of his game and attitude which transformed awe into respect from his teammates.
So, Bryant missing a few games became a learning moment for his team, and, more importantly, for the league—because the Lakers may have proved they are not as vulnerable as once thought.
The bench, which has been maligned all season, has finally settled into a rotation of Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, and they have taken large strides in correcting the issues concerning gaps in the perimeter defense.
Sasha Vujacic, once banished to the end of the bench, has re-surfaced and he decided to bring tenacity on defense and vestiges of the jumper, which prompted him to refer to himself as "the machine".
It doesn't stop there, as the Lakers have been just as dominant on the interior, even without Bynum—who sat out Monday's game after suffering a hip injury in Portland on Saturday.
Artest is beginning to find his comfort level on both ends of the floor, and Odom is visibly concentrating on performing in a more consistent manner, so one could say Kobe may have chosen the perfect time to take a break.
Anyone who would offer the opinion that the Lakers are a better team without Bryant are not only being foolish, but they are missing an important point as well...this team should be feared more than ever before.
In the absence of two injured starters, the Lakers showed how effective the triangle offense can be when ran with precision and timing and a concerted effort from all parties involved.
They didn't just beat Portland and San Antonio, they handled them, and those type of wins instill confidence in a team which was seeking a formula to handle these situations when they presented themselves.
Imagine facing a Laker team which has full belief in each other, even in the face of something as extreme as losing one of the best players of our generation.
Finally, imagine facing this same confident team in the playoffs, but with the services of an energized, refreshed, and focused Bryant. There are probably 15 other teams that would rather not.