LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant’s worst nightmare: He sits out to rest, and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers not only play well in his absence, but dominate -- and they not only dominate, but they do so against the team with the best record in the NBA.
That was Tuesday at Staples Center: a surreal, wacky, pinch-yourself kind of night.
“They kicked our ass,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the 9-19 Lakers did exactly that, pounding the 23-4 Warriors 115-105.
The Lakers led by as much as 24 -- their biggest lead of the season.
They tied their season high with 28 assists.
They tied their season high with 12 3-pointers.
They had two separate streaks of nine straight made field goals.
They were so hot, in fact, that Vlade Divac, whom the Lakers traded in 1996 to the Charlotte Hornets for the draft rights to a teenager named Kobe Bryant, sank a half-court shot between the third and fourth quarters that won $90,000 for charity.
By that point, the Lakers were up 95-73 entering the fourth and the crowd was hyped, but when his shot went through, the fans went bonkers and the building turned into a madhouse.
But underlying the Lakers’ biggest win of the season was the notion that has been floating around for a while, one heavily supported by advanced statistics.
So far this season, the numbers indicate that the Lakers have performed better when Bryant is off the court versus when he is on it. And though this was, of course, just one game ...
Not that his teammates were ready to connect the dots, but you could still read between the lines.
“We learned a lot about ourselves [Tuesday night],” said Lakers guard Jeremy Lin, who finished with 11 points and five assists off the bench.
"I think we learned --”
“I would say it’s just another stepping stone."
Ah, so close.
Wayne Ellington started in place of Bryant, scored 12 points and said they showed the rest of the Lakers aren't just out there for “jokes and giggles.”
“We can hoop,” Ellington said. “We just showed that we can hoop. We’re a good team when we all come out together.
As usual, Lakers guard Nick Young, who scored 15 points, was the most outspoken.
“Some guys just played like ‘Django Unchained' -- they were free tonight,” he said.
And what would Young tell Bryant?
“Pretty much going to have to tell Kobe to pass me the ball, pass us the ball,” Young said. “Tell him to take the backseat for a little bit. He can be ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and I can be Miss Daisy and drive.”
For the record, the Warriors called this a trap game even before tipoff.
“We know we can’t let our guard down just because Kobe is out,” Kerr said before the game. “In many ways, it becomes a more dangerous game. We've got to be ready. They’re going to play well.”
Former Lakers and current Warriors assistant Luke Walton even warned his team, saying, “Hey, you better believe they’re going to be ready to play. Kobe is out and it’s their chance to play and get shots and get minutes.”
The Lakers’ locker room has often been a dismal place this season, even bordering on toxic, but it was as upbeat as ever after the Warriors win.
The 36-year-old Bryant wasn't in the building after Lakers coach Byron Scott told his star guard to meet them for their flight to Chicago for a Christmas Day matchup against the Bulls -- a game Scott said Bryant would start.
Bryant missed Tuesday after a string of bad games, after which he consistently complained about fatigue, leading Scott to finally sit Bryant down after playing him a team-high 35.4 minutes per game this season.
But the biggest question is whether the Lakers can play as they did Tuesday with Bryant in the lineup.
“That’s the challenge -- that we make sure we all try to get on the same page, continue to get on the same page,” Lin said. "You have to ask Coach more so than me, so, yeah."
Scott is optimistic, yet it’s unclear how the Lakers can keep a selfless rhythm with Bryant shooting as often as he does -- a league-high 22.4 attempts per game this season.
“When we go through slumps or periods when we’re not playing well, he takes it upon himself to be the aggressor,” Scott said. “That’s just him. One thing we've talked about is allowing those guys to continue to play. We’ll try that when he gets back.”
Scott added, “I think if he saw how we played tonight, he’d say, 'That was great.'”
(Wait. Did Scott think Bryant wasn't watching? Well, maybe he turned the game off at one point.)
“It takes a lot more pressure off of him, and it takes a lot more wear and tear off him, as well,” Scott continued. “It saves him more than anything, as well. It gives our guys confidence. We’ll try to play the same way. Hopefully, we can.”
The performance no doubt gives other Lakers confidence that they can play without Bryant.
“Sometimes you've got to move your security blanket to the side and just go out and play,” Scott said. “I think that’s what we did tonight. And when he comes back, it shouldn't be any different.”
That said, given how well the Lakers played without Bryant, and given whom they were playing against, it’s easy to jump to conclusions, especially when the data points in one direction.
Through 28 games, the Lakers' net rating -- the difference between offensive and defensive rating -- with Bryant on the court is minus-13.3 points per 100 possessions.
When he's on the bench, it's a whole different story: The Lakers' net rating is plus-11.1 points per 100 possessions.
But to people who point to Tuesday’s performance and to such numbers, Scott said, “I would say [those] people are crazy.”
To him, it was just one of those games.
“I hope we can keep that lightning in the bottle for the next three, four months,” he said. “I don’t know if we can play at that level for the rest of the season.”
It did give Scott a blueprint that he could take to Bryant as proof that team basketball can help the Lakers compete.
“It was great to have a game like this to make that case, just so he knows,” Scott said. “We’re still going to lean on him, but we don’t have to as heavy as we are. That’s kind of the message.”
But why do they have to lean on Bryant? Didn't Tuesday prove that they don’t need to lean on him? That he can just be one cog?
“[Tuesday] was one game,” Scott said. “Again, you’re looking at one game instead of the whole season or a smaller sample, let’s say 20 games or 30 games. We do have to lean on him at times. He’s one of the best players that’s ever played in this game.”