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Friday, March 15, 2013
Lakers seize Kobe's vacated limelight

By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- It's not often that Steve Blake can be the one voice to truly speak on behalf of his team, but after the Lakers' biggest win of the season Friday, he said it better than anybody else.

"We have so much respect for Kobe [Bryant] giving us his effort, but we knew once he went out it was going to take all of us to step up," Blake said. "That's a great feeling -- when you can do that as a team."

Bryant is such a singular driving force, much the same way Michael Jordan was, often referring to his teammates as his "supporting cast," as if they were all character actors while he was the movie star. So it's understandable that any Laker narrative will include Kobe.

Which is precisely why the Lakers' 99-93 win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday was special -- because it didn't include him.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant was helpless to rescue the Lakers on Friday night, but his teammates' courageous effort was enough to earn the win.
Want to know the first three names to come out of Steve Nash's mouth when he was doling out praise after the game? Blake, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark.

Blake was a no-brainer. His 18 points, seven assists, four steals and two blocked shots (he had just three all season coming into the game) were the definition of a game-changing performance. Jamison was right there with him, scoring 17 points off the bench, including a 3-pointer with 58.5 seconds left that doubled L.A.'s lead from three to six.

Clark, who was nursing a much less-publicized sprained right ankle than Bryant's left one, gutted out the whole game and hit a 3-pointer to break a 79-79 tie midway through the fourth quarter.

Sometimes, it seems like following the Lakers just means following Bryant. His actions have reverberations not just through the team, but through the NBA as a whole. It felt like the league couldn't scramble fast enough to send out a statement that Bryant was right in calling out Dahntay Jones for his dangerous defense at the end of the Atlanta game, and turned a blind eye when he vowed for "revenge" against Jones -- the same league that suspended Carmelo Anthony for hanging by the Boston Celtics' bus after a game and never even having the encounter with Kevin Garnett he intended to have.

That's the reality. Bryant is one of the top five scorers in league history, and he'll be just the second player in league history after Jordan to make $30 million in salary in a season when he earns that amount in 2013-14. The name "Kobe" rings bells from Bel Air to Belgrade.

But when he went out after scoring zero points on 0-for-4 shooting in the first quarter, being held scoreless for just the 15th time in his illustrious career, his teammates didn't look like a lost bunch.

"What I told them is, 'I don't know how much I have, but whatever I have, I'm going to give you,'" Bryant said. "That's all my message was to them."

Their message to him by their play was, "We got this."

The Lakers, just 2-16 on the road all season against teams with winning records, marched into Bankers Life Fieldhouse to face a Pacers team that had won nine of 12 games coming into the night, were 26-7 at home and had the second-best record overall in the East, which made it all the more improbable that the Lakers controlled the game without their best player.

"We have too much talent to think that there's not a chance for us to win when he's not out there," Jamison said.

The biggest example of that talent, both literally and figuratively, is Dwight Howard.

Howard finished the game with 20 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and four assists after starting the game with one of the worst sequences you could imagine. In the first three minutes of the first, Howard managed to get blocked by David West and tweak his injured right shoulder in the process, a traveling call and an offensive foul.

Looking at Howard's final stat line, it would be easy to make the game recap about how he responded, including scoring a crucial and-1 layup (plus the converted free throw) to put L.A. up by three with 1:30 to go, but Howard gave credit to his teammates for getting him there.

"It was tough, but we all pulled through together," Howard said. "The guys really helped me out, talking to me, making sure I was in a good place."

And then there's Metta World Peace, who scored 19 points to go with seven rebounds, three assists and two steals in his old city -- where the fans still give him a hard time -- and played his typically tough defense.

But when a reporter tried to praise World Peace, saying, "David West [who shot 4-for-13] had a tough night because of you," he replied by saying, "… And the team."

Later, World Peace called it, "the biggest win of the season for us."

It's a season that has clear momentum, finally, with the Lakers winning 10 of 13 games since the All-Star Game and 18 of 24 overall. A season that still has enough games (15) to integrate Pau Gasol back into the lineup, as he's expected back as soon as Sunday. And a season that just so happens to have the next three teams on the schedule -- Sacramento, Phoenix and Washington -- all owning records that are hovering around 20 games under .500, so Bryant can take his sweet time with that ankle and L.A. will still have a good shot at going 3-0.

"The way we won, how hard we played, is satisfying, and we just got to keep it going," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said.

"It was a fun night to be out there," Blake said.

There could be some fun in store for this Lakers season yet.