LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers are in.
In what seemed like a remote possibility months ago and a dicey proposition even a week ago when Kobe Bryant went out with a torn Achilles, the Lakers not only got into the playoffs, they got in playing a brand of basketball that could equate to some continued postseason success.
Here they are, 16 wins from an unlikely championship No. 17, with a suddenly stingy defense that allowed its past two opponents -- one of them being the highest-scoring team in the league in the Houston Rockets and the other being the No. 2 team in the West in the San Antonio Spurs -- to average 93 points on 39.3 percent shooting.
Here they are, riding a wave of momentum and playing with one rock that is finding so many hands -- from the five guys who scored eight points or more against the Spurs to the six guys who tallied nine points or more against the Rockets.
Even when the ball was spread around Wednesday, it didn't always go in, of course; L.A. shot just 36.7 percent as a team. But the fact that it kept moving kept the Lakers' bodies moving on defense.
"The great thing about it was everybody contributed," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said.
Who makes up the "everybody" on the Lakers' roster that D'Antoni was referring to has changed drastically throughout the season and maybe even more so in the past two games without Bryant.
Suddenly Darius Morris has a place off the bench. And Steve Blake is relied on to score (47 points over his past two games, a dramatic change from the player who scored two points or fewer 16 times in 2011-12). And Jodie Meeks is starting in Bryant's place and even receiving "Jo-die! Jo-die!" chants from the crowd, taking Kobe's cheers.
Most important, the team identity is firmly established. The Lakers are an inside-out team controlled by Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. They are not the second coming of Showtime. They are not Bryant freelancing with shades of the triangle. They are not Steve Nash running the pick-and-roll or Bryant running the pick-and-roll.
This is a team that will slow you down, grind you out, pound you all over and do it on both ends.
"Because [Bryant is] such a big, important part of what we did, and rightly so, it is different," D'Antoni said before the game Wednesday. "And then when Nash comes back, it will be a little different again. So, there’s always different layers, but he’s a big layer or two."
Bryant often was the armor for the Lakers this season, one that took on the brunt of the challenge L.A. was facing on his own. But armor can be stifling. The Lakers don't have Bryant to rely on, yes, but they have a belief they can win with the group they have. Winning as a group when everyone takes the wheel when it’s his turn makes for a far better journey than winning and feeling like a passenger along for the ride.
"We're playing together like a family," Blake said.
While L.A. is just coming together, the Spurs are like a family that has put down roots for more than a decade with a patriarch in Gregg Popovich and a band of brothers in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Even though San Antonio is the No. 2 seed and the Lakers are No. 7, and even though the Spurs won 13 more games in the regular season than the Lakers, consider this: L.A. is 28-12 since Jan. 23. The Spurs are 24-13, including the aforementioned loss to this current iteration of the Lakers.
This isn't to say that the Lakers should just assume that bringing good ol' Uncle Mo on the flight to San Antonio with them will help them steal a win at the AT&T Center in either Sunday's Game 1 or Wednesday's Game 2. As vulnerable as the Spurs might have looked lately and as inspired as the Lakers suddenly seem, San Antonio went 35-6 at home for a reason, just as it wasn't an accident the Lakers went 16-25 on the road.
Don't forget that even though Nash told ESPN's Chris Broussard that he was hoping to return for Game 1, that's not necessarily the best thing if (A) Nash is still hobbled, (B) Nash is hobbled and can't play defense or (C) Nash is hobbled and takes minutes and rhythm away from Blake.
The Lakers are still in an experimental stage. It's a dangerous place to be this late into things. Then again, earlier in the season, Howard and Gasol were shells of themselves because of injuries.
But they believe in where things are headed.
"Everybody counted us out. But one thing I told the guys is we’ve been through so much that could have made us separate from each other," Howard said. "But we stayed strong, we stayed together and we won for each other.
“We're happy that we're in the playoffs, but we're not done yet."
There's a seven-game series now. Plenty of more time to experiment and hope that the formula keeps working. The Lakers are in.