"There's a kind of freedom in being completely screwed... because you know things can't get any worse."
--Matthew Broderick as Clark Kellogg in 1990's The Freshman
Last Saturday the Lakers headed into Portland, a place they hadn't won since the Coolidge administration, and learned they'd be without Kobe Bryant, thanks to a bum ankle.
Monday against the Spurs, they learned they'd be without Kobe and Andrew Bynum, who came down hard on his right hip against the Blazers, missing all but 10 minutes of that contest.
Wednesday night in Utah, the Lakers were again without Bryant and Bynum, this time facing a white-hot Jazz squad, winners of nine straight and 13 of their last 14 games.
It was a third-straight game the Lakers were supposed to lose, and a third straight game they dominated. Final score, 96-81.
Of course, the Lakers will rightly tell you they were never, in fact, in serious trouble when 24 and Bynum were forced into street clothes. After all, they have a solid reserve of high-quality talent.
But the injuries stripped away all the subplots, frustrations, and question marks surrounding an elite team only shades off the NBA's best record, and yet oddly off-kilter.
The group was left to rely rely on its core principles.
Derek Fisher talked about it at practice Tuesday afternoon. They had to run their offense properly, moving the ball and themselves to create clean opportunities.
After Monday's win, Phil Jackson noted how defensively the Lakers had to understand the importance of each trip because points might not be so easy to find at the other end.
They needed something to reboot the system and return them to the quality decision-making and precision basketball that defined last year's title run.
Kobe's injury seems to have provided it.
You could see it in the final sequence of the first quarter. With 27.4 seconds remaining, the Jazz came up the floor looking to get the frame's final points. Utah's Ronnie Price waited just past half court, allowing time to come off the clock before making his move against Jordan Farmar. With about 10 ticks left, he did, trying to come over a Carlos Boozer screen at the top of the arc.
Rather than lose Price on the drive, Farmar delivered a foul the Lakers had available. Off the inbound with 8.4 seconds remaining, Ronnie Brewer tried to penetrate, and was blocked at the rim by Pau Gasol.
Pau fed Sasha Vujacic, streaking up court with under four seconds to play. With just over a second remaining, Sasha dished to Farmar, who alertly had filled the right wing behind the arc. Farmar stepped into a rhythm triple, which he drilled, putting the Lakers up 31-18.
Any number of things could have happened differently. Farmar could have ignored the available foul and let Price penetrate. Pau could have backed off Brewer, worried about giving up a late trip to the line (or have fouled him and produced a different opportunity for Utah). Sasha could have taken the last shot himself, a perfectly reasonable proposition given the situation. Or Farmar could have given up on the play, figuring the quarter would end before something constructive could happen.
Instead, each made a better play, helping polish off a 12-0 run over the final 2:15, a stretch in which everything the Lakers did on both sides of the ball was at an elite level.
Ironically, it seems to have taken the absence of their most elite player to find it.
More to come...