PORTLAND, Ore. -- I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out the Lakers' inexplicable five-year losing streak in Portland, so it figures that L.A. would end the nine-game streak on the second night of a back-to-back and without injured Andrew Bynum, who went down in the first quarter because of a bruised hip.
But the fact that the Lakers did it without Kobe Bryant is the biggest surprise of all.
Bryant sat out the game because of a sprained left ankle, ending a streak of 235 consecutive games played. He made the decision not to play less than an hour before tipoff and has not indicated whether he'll try to play in the Lakers' next game Monday night against the Spurs at Staples Center.
So how were the Lakers able to win without Bryant? They spread the ball around. Ron Artest had his best game as a Laker with a team-high 21 points, and Shannon Brown came off the bench to score 19. Lamar Odom seemed to grab every rebound and finished with 22. Derek Fisher had a solid night with 14 points and 6 assists.
The Lakers also played as a team. Inside the Rose Garden, there is a giant electronic scoreboard that is called the "hustle board." It keeps track of blocked shots, rebounds and steals. On the night, the Lakers had more rebounds (47 to 30) than the Trail Blazers and more steals (8 to 5) to help win the hustle board 57-38.
Whether the Lakers can sustain a winning record without Bryant is something we've debated on my radio show for the past two years. Most people seem to think that the Lakers are so deep that the team would find a way to win even without Kobe. After the way L.A. dismantled Portland, I'm sure this is now the most popular theory in Southern California.
I've just never subscribed to it.
I've written before that without Kobe, I think the Lakers would struggle to make the playoffs. Most people disagree with me, but I think he's that important. And I'm absolutely convinced that even if the team did make the postseason, the Lakers would go nowhere without Bryant. He's such a great scorer that he makes his teammates better just by being on the court. The other team is so worried about what Kobe is doing that it opens things up for everybody else.
Pau Gasol, Odom and Bynum are solid players, but they aren't as good without Kobe. There's a reason Odom never made the playoffs when he played for the Clippers, and Gasol never won a postseason game before he arrived in L.A.
Only a handful guys in the NBA -- fewer than 10 -- can consistently take over a game. Kobe is on that list, and without him, there is virtually no chance to win the title. Look it up: Since 1980, only one team (the 2004 Detroit Pistons) has been able to win the championship without one of those guys.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss knew exactly what he was doing when he refused to trade Bryant. It's easier to get the pieces to go around the star than it is to get the star. And if you trade a star, you had better make sure you either still have one left (like Kobe when Shaq left) or are getting one in return.
But realistically, the question isn't whether the Lakers can win the title without Kobe but rather whether they can win in the short term if he sits for a while. The Lakers have two games before the All-Star break -- Monday at home against San Antonio and Wednesday at Utah. I think if Kobe sits out Monday, he'll seriously consider taking off not only Wednesday but Sunday's All-Star game as well. That would give him a 10-day break and allow his ankle (along with his two broken fingers, sore elbow and sore back) to rest for an extended period.
If that happens, the other Lakers will have a chance to provide L.A. fans with a look at what life would be like without Kobe. If they spread the ball around the way they did at Portland and get career games from the likes of Artest and Brown, maybe they can prove me wrong and hold down the fort against the likes of the Spurs and Jazz.
For the Lakers' sake, I just hope they don't have to do it for too long.
John Ireland hosts the "Mason & Ireland" show on ESPN Radio 710 in Los Angeles.