The important thing? The Los Angeles Lakers won.
Does a six-point victory over a 3-17 Washington Wizards squad without John Wall, Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker and A.J. Price qualify as a particularly impressive achievement? Not in the slightest. But that’s not what’s important right now for the Lakers.
They needed to stop the bleeding, even temporarily, and that’s what happened.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
Bryant didn’t shoot the ball well but stepped up big as a leader
Thursday’s loss to the New York Knicks wasn’t painful just to the Lakers’ place in the standings. It also did a number on Kobe Bryant’s health. The guard was hit hard with back spasms, then spent as much time as possible with a heat pack attached to his body. His availability for Friday's game was never in question -- it’s Kobe -- and while he played through gritted teeth, I thought he did a fantastic job setting a “do whatever it takes to win” tone for his teammates.
Despite the bad back, Bryant was extremely lively on the defensive end, snagging a pair of steals and pulling down seven rebounds. He forced Cartier Martin into a travel by crowding him in pick-and-roll coverage. He even drew a charge, which Bryant, by his own admission, rarely does with a healthy back, much less a balky one. And speaking of playing through pain, Bryant absorbed some contact from Martell Webster after converting an alley-oop pass from Jodie Meeks. The landing was awkward, and Bryant stayed on the ground for about 20 seconds. But as is typically the case with Kobe, he dusted himself off and got back to work. Bryant also had the hustle play of the game, flying in to retrieve and put back a missed late fourth-quarter free throw from Dwight Howard, essentially putting the game on ice.
In the meantime, Bryant made good on his word Thursday night to operate more often as a quasi-point guard with Steve Nash and Steve Blake on the shelf. Seven assists demonstrated how Bryant appeared intent to set up others as well as himself. He went behind the back to set up Howard for an attempt at the rim. He ran a high screen-and-roll with Robert Sacre, then dished to Darius Morris along the arc to set up a triple. And perhaps the most impressive pass came toward the end of the third quarter, when he turned getting trapped by two Wizards into a pinpoint cross-court pass to a red-hot Meeks, who drained a 3.
Clearly, with 29 shot attempts, Bryant also was looking for his, and that’s fine. For that matter, so were the inevitable forced shots on a few possessions. But there was a better balancing act between scorer and facilitator Friday night, and I’m hoping that remains the case moving forward.
Meeks a major spark plug
The night didn’t begin particularly well for Meeks, who missed a couple of layups, one of which was wide open in transition after having been set up beautifully by Kobe. But it didn’t take long to discover a rhythm, and once that happened, the reserve guard became a huge spark for the Lakers. Shots were drained along the arc and in the corners, often in succession, creating desperately needed (if not necessarily carefully guarded) separation. The rim was attacked with more success, even if it meant occasionally putting back his own miss from close range. He finished the night with 24 points off the pine and appears to be usurping Antawn Jamison as the designated sixth man. And despite a few lapses, I thought Meeks did a nice job on the defensive end, highlighted by nonstop hustle.
Sacre took advantage of an opportunity
Against New York, Robert Sacre got tossed into the mix after foul trouble plagued both Howard and Jordan Hill. Mike D’Antoni had no choice but to roll with the rookie. Generally speaking, that’s how second-round rookies get on the floor: The coach’s hands are tied, so the dice are reluctantly rolled. Given how Hill missed Friday night's contest with back spasms, it stood to reason Sacre would get some more run. After Howard picked up a third foul in the first half, the rookie ended up playing nearly 11 minutes before halftime. He performed well. Four first-half rebounds were snagged -- one on the offensive glass, which he converted into an authoritative dunk -- and a Wizards shot was returned to sender. Another bucket came on a pretty step-back jumper along the baseline.
Sacre’s second-half run didn’t add anything to his stat column, but he maintained his energy and, more important, didn’t make many mistakes. Once Hill’s back heals, I’m guessing Sacre will resume his role as arguably the league’s most popular sideline entertainer, what with his dancing and reveling after big plays. But he did a nice job reassuring his coach and teammates that if times get lean, he can take the floor without the game going off the rails. For that matter, Devin Ebanks also presented himself well in an unexpected start with Hill on the shelf.
World Peace was solid throughout
The resident bull in a china shop drove the lane against Nene on consecutive plays to close the first half, the first bucket earning him an and-1 opportunity. Metta World Peace then attacked the rim on consecutive possessions to open the second half, the latter bucket a pretty give-and-go with Howard that started after MWP took a defensive rebound three-quarters of the court. While converting the layup, World Peace hurt his hand and appeared in excruciating pain for a few minutes. But, like Kobe, he gutted it out, and that help made a massive difference.
This team has no clue how to close a game
None. Whatsoever. At all. And that needs to change, posthaste.