LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant knew he'd messed up before the New York Knicks' J.R. Smith finished off the fastbreak layup. Yes, he'd been taking Jason Kidd off the dribble every time the veteran point guard switched out to guard him. And yes, this was as good a time as any to do so again with the Lakers looking to extend a three-point lead with a little less than six minutes to go in this Christmas Day showdown against New York. As usual, Bryant had carried the Lakers offensively, scoring 34 points on an efficient 14-for-24 shooting.
But for the first time this season -- or maybe the last decade -- the Lakers didn't need Bryant to save them at the end of a game with his usual assortment of impossible shots and playmaking. They have Steve Nash now.
So when Kidd picked Bryant's pocket as he tried to split the double-team, then fed the ball to Smith for a layup that cut the lead to a single point, Bryant did something I've never seen from him. He slapped himself across the head, took a deep breath to reset, then smiled.
He did not take another shot the rest of the game.
Take a minute to digest that. With the game on the line -- an important game, too, as the Lakers 100-94 win Tuesday got them back to .500 on the season -- Kobe Bryant caught himself, checked himself and then ultimately sacrificed himself because that's what was best for the team's chances of winning.
On the next possession, Nash found Dwight Howard for a dunk to put the Lakers back up by three. Then Bryant found Pau Gasol for a 17-foot jumper to extend the lead to five. The Knicks charged back one more time, but Howard made three of his four free throws in the final 3:45, Nash nailed a 10-foot jumper, then found Gasol for a driving two-handed dunk with 12 seconds left to punctuate the emotional win.
The ball was moving quickly, the Lakers were scoring freely, and all that dysfunction from the first two months of this season felt as if it were a hundred years ago.
It was, at long last, as Bryant and coach Mike D'Antoni had always envisioned it could be. Nash playmaking for everyone, taking the pressure off Bryant and allowing him to focus on scoring. Howard playing the kind of lights-out defense in the paint that won him three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards. Gasol meshing his unique talents as a low-post scorer and passer out of the high post.
So what was Bryant doing down the stretch? Playmaking, passing, playing defense and then pumping his fist as Howard made both of his free throws with 2:22 to go. He didn't need to score every point down the stretch to save the Lakers on this night. He trusted Nash to do the right thing. He trusted him implicitly.
"It puts everybody in position to do what they do best," Bryant said when asked about ceding control of the offense to Nash at the end.
Because of the stage these Christmas Day games are played on, it's easy to make too much of this Lakers win. Yes, it got them back to .500 and extended their winning streak to five games. And yes, it was nice to beat an elite team after going just 5-10 against teams with winning records to begin the season.
But a quick glance at the two games scheduled later in the day -- Heat-Thunder and Clippers-Nuggets -- reminds you of just how far the Lakers still have to go to truly be considered a contender again.
Still, this game was important. Symbolic even. Because, for the first time all season, there was both hope -- and empirical evidence -- that this grand experiment just might work.
It will take time to cohere. It will take effort to pull it together. It will take sacrifice on all their parts to accept the roles they must play.
Bryant is going to have to trust. Howard is going to have to lead defensively, even if it costs him a bit offensively. D'Antoni is going to have to compromise (he left Gasol in the game with Howard for the final 6:05 this time). Gasol is going to have to adjust his game and his attitude. Nash, well, he just has to stay healthy.
But all that was there Tuesday against the Knicks. And it started with Bryant and Howard -- the Lakers past, present and future -- being self-aware enough to recognize what needed to be done, and what sacrifices needed to be made to secure the win.
In his current condition, Howard has only so much energy. He's at best, 75-80 percent of his former self as he continues to work his way back from major offseason back surgery. The question on every night is how much of that energy should be allocated to defense and how much should go toward scoring.
On this day though, Howard had a point to prove. To himself, to the rest of the league, and yes, even to his teammates. Defense matters. And he can still play it with the best of 'em.
"I was just trying to be as active as I could on the defensive end. Block shots, rebound, change shots, do whatever I can to help our team," said Howard, who finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
"I just tried to do what I do best. Change the game. It's not about the stats. A lot of people get caught up in what's on the stat sheet -- points and all that stuff -- but there's certain plays that may not show up on the stat sheet that change games."
He was matched, of course, with Tyson Chandler, the Knicks center who beat him out for the DPOY award last season as New York finished fifth in defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) after they were 21st the previous season.
On more than one occasion Howard has let it be known he was upset he lost out on that award last season. And statistically speaking, he's got a point. Howard led the league in defensive rebounds (10.8) last season, Chandler was just seventh (6.5). He led all centers in steals (1.5), Chandler was sixth (0.9). He was also third in blocks (2.1), Chandler was 11th (1.4).
What Howard didn't have was a good story. The nightmare surrounding his impending free agency and trade demands swallowed up just about anything he did on the court.
Tuesday afternoon, Howard could finally do something about it.
"I think he takes a lot of pride in his defense and being the best defensive player," Bryant said of Howard. "Tonight, his activity really helped turn the game for us.
"Defensively he was incredible."
It's hard to measure that effort, but the Lakers 46-26 advantage on points in the paint is a good place to start. So is the highlight of him causing Knicks guard Raymond Felton to fall to the ground after he rotated over for a menacing, two-handed block of one of Felton's drives into the lane.
But perhaps most important was the way Howard willingly sacrificed his offensive game a bit to focus his energy and intensity on defense.
"Yeah, because of the matchups we went to me obviously, we went to Pau," Bryant said when asked if Howard had conceded a bit on offense for defense. Howard took just eight shots in 38 minutes.
"To his credit, he didn't sulk, he didn't get discouraged, he went out there and knocked down his free throws, and defensively he was incredible."
It's not glamorous work. It's certainly not all Howard can contribute to the Lakers. But for now, it's what they need. And through both his words and his actions, Howard seems to know that.
Earlier in the week, I asked Gasol what one trait the Lakers championship teams of 2009 and 2010 had that this one didn't so far.
He paused a moment, considered the question carefully, then answered.
"We had our roles, everybody respected those roles and played them really well," Gasol said. "We were together for an entire year, we wouldn't lose more than two games in a row, we were very disciplined, defensively we were solid, and we played, for the most part, very selflessly on offense. Everyone knew, more or less, what his role was within the system, and the rotations were pretty solid and consistent."
Does this team have that yet?
"We're getting there," Gasol said. "Hopefully we're getting all the pieces back now and we're going to get some consistency and a path we can follow and build on every single game."
It was one game in a very long season. One win in a season in which the Lakers will need a lot more to end up anywhere close to where they hope. But for the first time Tuesday, you saw evidence that the path Gasol spoke of might indeed exist.