The Los Angeles Lakers lost a game against the Boston Celtics on Thursday night that they very well could have won. During the continued absence of Kobe Bryant, this defeat should serve as lesson No. 1 for those who claim the team is better without him.
Yes, it's true the Lakers have performed above expectations since Bryant has been sidelined, blitzing opponents in each of the previous four games, but this game against a quality opponent clearly illustrates how valuable Bryant is to the defending champs.
Please disregard L.A. point guard Derek Fisher's futile attempt at the buzzer, which by the way was a made-for-Bryant moment, because that's not even the most instructive aspect of this loss. Instead look to the other end of the floor for irrefutable proof of Bryant's importance to the Lakes title aspirations. Celtics guard Ray Allen's offensive performance begged to be met with the defensive tenacity that Bryant consistently brings to his position.
Allen, who has visibly lost a step in recent years, seemed invigorated by Bryant's absence, scoring 24 points. No Laker in uniform was up to the task of defending him.
Allen continuously exposed the Lakers and their attempts to adjust only opened up the floor for teammates. When Shannon Brown switched to Allen then Rajon Rondo carved up the porous perimeter defense. Without the ability to stop the Celtics' guards at the top of the key or on the wings, the Lakers were victimized by repeated forays to the rim.
Surely, Bryant's defense would have been a welcome sight for Left Coast fans. Other than the aforementioned defensive deficiencies, the Lakers stood toe-to-toe with the physical Celtics.
Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum were dominant in the paint and Ron Artest played inspired basketball at both ends of the floor, providing key resistance to Paul Pierce, and making tough plays in the offensive game.
In an even contest, the difference between a win and a loss hinged on a player who has built his reputation by succeeding in moments such as these.
There is no guarantee that Bryant would have come through in the clutch where Fisher failed, but based on prior performances, I would be reluctant to bet against him and those are the moments in which he thrives.
The Lakers have shown they have the will, the talent, and the passion to compete even without the services of Kobe Bryant, but every once in a while a quick dose of reality is needed.
Los Angeles may seem to be a more precise team since Bryant has been out of the lineup, and the Lakers' stellar play the last four games could be used as evidence of that.
The last time the Lakers played the Celtics, the end of the game played out in much the same manner, and the difference in that contest was Kobe Bryant taking the last shot to win the game.
So to those who claim to see a better team without Bryant, there are always reminders of the way greatness can affect the outcomes of games, and the Lakers could have benefited from that magic Thursday night.