(UPDATE: It's official: Both Kobe and Drew are out tonight.)
With Andrew Bynum (hip, knee) unlikely to suit up tonight and Kobe Bryant (ankle) still a question mark, tonight's game against the Spurs is shaping up to look strikingly similar to their match on Jan. 12 in the Alamo.
The Lakers were short a key big man (Pau Gasol) and Kobe's back began to spasm after a spin move against Manu Ginobli. Bryant's second and third quarters were played while physically limited and he didn't take the floor at all during the fourth. Throw in Sasha Vujacic's in-game hamstring injury, plus Adam Morrison (potentially needed with this many folks hurtin') nursing a sore throat and this was a game battled and lost under very tough circumstances. But don't let the not-so-smooth 105-85 score fool you.
The Lakers actually managed to play competitively for stretches. Down 22 with nearly half of the third quarter expired, the purple and gold clawed their way back into the contest. A 14-4 run cut the lead down to a dozen heading into the final frame, during which Jordan Farmar's layup eventually chipped things down to a six-point deficit with 5:37 remaining.
From there, the Lakers either run out of gas or perhaps just succumbed to their sudden circumstances, because they only managed two more buckets. No doubt, the Spurs had established firm control as the final horn sounded. But even for those who don't subscribe to the concept of "moral victories" (and I'm personally among them), there undoubtedly positives to hanging tough for large stretches without their two best players.
Most notably, the loss featured some of the best pure teamwork the Lakers had exhibited in quite some time, with nearly everybody who stepped on the floor bringing positives to the table. That "all hands on deck" mentality lasted another 24 hours when the Lakers arrived in Dallas and beat the Mavericks with Bryant severely limited and Gasol still on the shelf. To my mind, it was the most significant and meaningful win of the season.
Until Saturday night's snapping of the Rose Garden curse without Bryant (entirely) and Bynum (largely).
Which brings us full circle to this evening, and my basic point for the game: the Lakers are hardly out of this one from Jump Street, regardless of the availability for Kobe or Drew. By definition, they've demonstrated proof positive of being able to succeed under these parameters. Yes, injuries left the Blazers without Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Travis Outlaw, Joel Przybilla and one or two beer vendors one assumes kept with the program and got hurt before the opening tip. But that's also a wash, in my mind, because the Lakers were not only missing their own key guys, but more importantly, the Spurs actually lost to that same decimated crew from Portland two days before the Lakers crushed them.
The Spurs may still be the Spurs, in that their core (too talented on paper) and their coach (too talented in actuality) remain impossible to ever dismiss. But if you think the Lakers haven't consistently performed like a team capable of defending a title, odds are you've been truly unimpressed by San Antonio, 5-5 over their last ten games and also .500 on the road this season. After a slow start, Tim Duncan is quietly carving out an MVP-caliber season, but key pieces around him haven't been impressive enough. Tony Parker (injuries), Ginobli (just now starting to heat up), Richard Jefferson (progressively contributing less) and Antonio McDyess (a notorious "second half" guy) haven't held up their ends of the bargain. True, DeJuan Blair has been the steal of the 2009 draft and George Hill continues to improve, but as the Spurs 29-20 record indicates, them youngsters aren't enough to keep up with the Joneses.
Again, these guys can never be counted out, but my point is they're hardly invincible, no matter who is or isn't presented and accounted for. The win against Portland presented the formula for success: Equal opportunities (and opportunities equally capitalized on). Focused execution (24 assists against just 10 turnovers on Saturday). Hard play on the glass and defensive end. If this all sounds pretty basic, that's because, in my opinion, winning without your stars often means getting back to basics. When the spectacular may be a limited commodity, you're gonna need to make the most of your bread and butter.
But as someone who's recently discovered the simple pleasures of buttered toast for breakfast every morning, bread and butter can be pretty damn tasty at times. Don't sleep on that menu item.
Two More Thoughts
-I remember hearing a commentator (Doug Collins, perhaps) note Duncan being bothered more by length than bulk from defenders. That struck me as interesting, so I paid close attention to Wake Forest's Finest while being checked by dudes of various sizes and shapes. And wouldn't you know it, The Big Fundamental does in fact often struggle against rangy fellas. Know who's rangy? Gasol, who I thought played a very good defensive game against LaMarcus Aldridge. Even with his offense up and down since returning from the second hamstring injury, Gasol is still capable of a positive effect on this end of the court, which would be a major contribution. Honestly, if he succeeds along these lines, I'm willing to write off any points as gravy.
-Blair is ridiculously good rebounder, averaging 6.5 on the season/2.4 offensively in under 20 minutes. The kid's got a motor like Ronny Turiaf and is absolutely willing to outwork the other nine guys on the court. An eye, then a body, must be on him at ALL times.