One thing is certain about the Lakers: They are the defending NBA Champions.
But have they actually been defending that much this season?
After their eight-game road trip, I was ready to dial down their chances of repeating this year. Even though they went 5-3, they were a miserable 1-3 against teams with winning records.
The one game they captured against a winning team—the Celtics—was by a margin of just one point, 90-89, on a patented clutch shot by Mister Laker, Kobe Bryant.
But unlike the games they had lost previously this season against winning teams, all three losses on the road were winnable games. None was as disappointing as the first game, a 93-87 loss in Cleveland that gave the Cavaliers a 2-0 season sweep of the Lakers.
But none was so utterly frustrating as the final game of the road trip, a 95-93 loss in Memphis that ironically saw Kobe Bryant pass Jerry West as the Lakers all-time leading scorer.
Returning to Staples Center, the Lakers barely escaped with a 99-97 victory over Charlotte. Then Denver came into town without Carmelo Anthony, their leading scorer, and absolutely mopped up the court with the Purple and Gold to a tune of 126-113.
Denver now holds a 2-0 edge in the season series, winning both games by blowouts. One more win over the Lakers, and the Nuggets will hold the tie-breaker in the Western Conference Playoffs.
At this point, I was hoping Mitch Kupchak would pull a trade. Which player or players? I didn’t care. Anyone for anyone. Just get somebody in here who could bring new life to the Lakers like Trevor Ariza did two years ago and Shannon Brown did last year.
Critics would say that the Denver game was an anomaly. Denver would never shoot 57 percent as a team in a seven-game series and an astounding 68 percent from beyond the arc. They would also say that Kobe Bryant was playing on a gimpy ankle.
True. But the Nuggets were without Carmelo Anthony, and Chauncey Billups was playing with an injured ankle as well. And it was Billups who did most of the damage from the three-point line, hitting on 9-of-13 and putting up 39 points to Bryant’s 33.
But even more important was the fact that the Nuggets now have it in their heads that they can beat the Lakers in a seven-game playoff. That’s the dangerous part.
Two years ago, the Nuggets had no confidence at all, and the Lakers swept them. Last year, they had a little more confidence and took the Lakers to a sixth game. This season, knowing they can beat the Lakers could make all the difference.
But then, an amazing thing happened. After all, this is the NBA—where amazing happens all the time.
Kobe Bryant announced just before game time at the Rose Garden in Portland that he would not play. If you had been in Las Vegas, you would have seen the odds turn up on the Lakers faster than the spin of a roulette wheel.
The Rose Garden had been a wasteland for the Lakers these many seasons. They had lost nine in a row and 15 out of their last 17 in Portland. Now without their MVP, Kobe Bryant, there was no way they could win.
But for the first time this season, the Lakers pulled together and gave a true team effort at both ends of the court. Not only without Bryant, who missed his first game since 2006, but Andrew Bynum as well, who left after the first half with a hip bruise and a swollen knee.
Still, no less than six Lakers wound up in double figures in their 99-82 victory. They absolutely dominated the defensive boards, limiting Portland to a mere two offensive rebounds and out-rebounding them for the game 47-30.
Lamar Odom grabbed almost half of the Lakers rebounds, ripping down 22 with those long arms of his.
The Lakers came back to Staples Center on Monday night to take on their biggest Western Conference rival, the San Antonio Spurs.
Still without Bryant and Bynum, the Lakers nevertheless played the Spurs just like they had played the Trail Blazers—with a stifling defense and a well-coordinated triangle offense.
Pau Gasol led them with a truly All-Star performance, scoring 21 points, pulling down 19 rebounds, and blocking five shots in the Lakers 101-89 triumph.
So, that more or less leaves us in go-figure mode. The Lakers seem to be a true enigma.
With Kobe Bryant, one of the best players to ever suit up, the Lakers have run hot and cold. Since leaving on their eight-game road trip, they have appeared lukewarm at best.
But without Bryant and Bynum, they have given their two best “team” performances of the season. So, what does it mean?
Hopefully, Bryant’s absence has done for the Lakers what it takes a mid-season trade to do for most teams. It may have given them that spark they needed to coalesce into a completely new team.
Bryant has sat on the sidelines and seen what his teammates can do without him. He should realize that they don’t need to depend solely on him to win games. Just maybe, as he sat there, he was able to figure a way he could work his game into theirs.
At last, Ron Artest may have found his place on this team and, like Bryant, may have figured a way to put his efforts on the line with his teammates.
As for the team as a whole, if they have awakened to the fact that each one of them is a star player upon whom they can trust, then they can truly be the defending NBA Champions.
But Bryant must trust them, and they must trust each other. Otherwise, they will just sink back into their old ways and remain the NBA Enigma.