When Kobe Bryant was injured this season we knew it. We saw the big gob of tape on his right index finger. We remember his wincing face when he strained his elbow in Sacramento. And we remember our wincing faces when his ankle bent the wrong way in Philadelphia.
The Lakers' newest member of the starting lineup, Lamar Odom, has been playing with an aggravated left shoulder injury for 15 games now, but he's never let on.
Not when the injury happened against the Boston Celtics on Feb. 18, when he threw down the hammer on Boston's Ray Allen to finish a fast break with a dunk, Odom's 6-foot-10, 230-pound body swinging out in front of him as his shoulder stayed locked in position with his left hand grasping the rim.
Not when he shot just 2-for-6 the next game against Memphis after the injury. Not when he shot 2-for-8 against Phoenix, either.
In fact, we scribes in the media didn't discover the injury until Lakers coach Phil Jackson outed Odom after the Minnesota game, explaining that sometimes the lefty's shoulder gets banged and suddenly causes his left arm to go numb.
Odom filled in for the injured Andrew Bynum on Sunday with four points, 13 rebounds, six assists, four steals and three blocked shots in Los Angeles' 99-92 win over Washington. Just ask Washington's Alonzo Gee if he knew it was a guy with a lame arm who blocked his shot from behind while starting a fast break all in one motion during the third quarter. Injured or not, Odom is contributing.
It was the team's first test since Bynum strained an Achilles tendon and the Lakers went back to the "In Case of Emergency, Break Glass" container they keep Odom in that's had its glass shattered numerous times before.
It's becoming an annual rite of passage for the Lakers: Bynum goes down. Odom steps up. But this time he's stepping up when a lot of players would be sitting out.
Jackson said Odom "just didn't feel comfortable out there," explaining the lefty's meager 1-for-4 shooting line and hefty sum of five turnovers. But the team was much more comfortable with him out there, even in a limited role.
"I think it's always important, whether it's myself, Lamar, Kobe [Bryant] or anybody on the team to basically report to work as long as you're physically able to," Derek Fisher said. "I think it's important that guys that are veterans and your key guys, even if it impacts your performance, so to speak, your presence is really more valuable than your statistics. We appreciate Lamar going through what he's going through, physically still going out there and mixing it up and doing all those little things that help us win games."
On Saturday, Odom said he doesn't expect to shoot well or rebound well when he plays with the injury, however he made sure to declare, "But I can still play basketball."
On Sunday, he explained the other facets he brings.
"Just the all-around game," Odom said. "Just the intangibles of the game. Running down the floor. Finding the open man. Setting a good screen. Making a pass that leads to the assist that leads to another good pass. Just playing."
He played some point-forward too, displaying the ball-handling magic that caused Pat Riley to once say Odom was the only player to come into the NBA since the Showtime era that could match what Magic Johnson does on the court (except that possession in the third quarter when he lost his dribble out of bounds when he crossed the ball through his legs with the Lakers up by 21 points).
"I'm going to look to make plays first," Odom said.
Odom said he tries to remind himself to grab rebounds two-handed, but his instincts kick in and there he goes swiping at the ball with just his left arm again. He said he tries to remind himself not to fully extend his arm on his jump shot to avoid a flash of pain, but his high follow through usually speeds through before his caution synapses kick in. He's submitted to the hurt.
After the game Jackson lamented the bench being outscored 37-25 and the ball not being swung from side to side on the court enough to create proper spacing to get open-shot opportunities. Of course, that bench was missing Odom, who is suddenly a starter again. As for the passing part, Odom led the team with six assists.
We know about Odom's injured now. More importantly, we know how important even an injured Odom is for this team.