Eric Gay/AP Photo
Kobe's back: If only Tim Duncan passing around it was the worst thing it suffered all night.
When the endgame is a second straight Larry O'Brien, there isn't a whole lot of room for moral victories. Still, Tuesday night in San Antonio, the Lakers may have happened upon one. Having made a habit of losing games to quality opponents by scores closer than the games deserved, the Lakers found themselves on the wrong end of a 105-85 final score, a 20-point deficit not at all revealing of the whole story.
Start with injuries. L.A.'s entered the game dealing with the slow burn of Kobe Bryant's fractured right index finger and Pau Gasol's improving hamstring. Over the ensuing 48 minutes, they added Ron Artest's right hand- one he spent most of the second half clutching before leaving the game with 4:11 remaining- a hamstring injury for Sasha Vujacic limiting him to 3:06 of playing time, a sore throat for Adam Morrison...
...oh, and did I mention Kobe spent the fourth quarter in the locker room getting treatment for back spasms? So easy to overlook the minor details, right?
Ironically, he shot the lights out early (7-10 in the first half), assuaging some fears about his bum pointer before the balky back sucked all the life out of his legs. After the half, ESPN Los Angeles' John Ireland reported on the KCAL broadcast Kobe didn't shoot coming out of the locker room to warm up for the second half, matching his shot total for the quarter that followed until he left the game with 39 seconds remaining in the frame.
"He just locked up in the third quarter. He had a spasm in the second, came out, they treated him. He came back and tried to play, and obviously he wasn't right," Phil Jackson said later. "He went back out and tried it in the second half, and couldn't play."
Kobe Bryant leaving with an injury, almost by definition, qualifies as a game's Biggest Moment, and likely swallows up Biggest Story in the process. At the same time, though, the Lakers, who had seen Kobe's shot total rise precipitously over the past few games (even while Bryant's FG% went down) in the absence of Gasol and had seemingly grown dangerously reliant on 24 during a trying stretch of games, didn't fold, whether with a limited Kobe in Q3, or down the stretch in the fourth.
Down 22 after a Tony Parker 17-footer at the 6:28 mark of the third, eight points from Andrew Bynum helped cut the deficit to 12 heading into the final 12 minutes. The Lakers kept hacking away at San Antonio's advantage, moving the ball, moving themselves, and most importantly cranking up the defensive intensity, holding the Spurs to only three points over the last 4:11 of the third and 3:13 of the fourth, good enough to get within seven. The deficit would narrow to six after a driving layup from Jordan Farmar with 5:37 remaining.
The Lakers wouldn't get any closer, as San Antonio's superior talent enough to pull away late. As for the final margin of victory (or loss, if you're looking at it from a purple and gold perspective), the Spurs scored ten unanswered over the last two minutes of play.) But the Lakers had already made a significant point- they could play solid ball on both ends against a real opponent without major contributions from 24. They found ways to score, with Bynum in the post, in transition off turnovers, even with Luke Walton, pressed into service thanks to the assault on L.A.'s body count.
While he was able to play, Kobe was forced to help his teammates succeed, forced to again find some of the trust perhaps lost over some admittedly raggedy Pau-free games.
I'm not saying the Lakers are better off without Bryant on the floor, but to some degree the reset button needed to be hit on the team's collective execution. They needed to start moving the ball and themselves, get re-dedicated to post play, and so on. The sort of stuff they do when the offense is humming and the defense is stopping the opposition. It happened in stretches on Tuesday night, under very trying circumstances. I have no idea how any of this translates to Wednesday night's game against the Mavericks, or if it even does. So much of that depends on who shows up to play, and I mean that in the most literal sense.
But there was something there the Lakers can reference even when the roster is again healthy.
Email the Kamenetzky Brothers at ESPNLandOLakers@gmail.com, follow them on Twitter at ESPNLandOLakers.