Nash's continued absence due to the broken fibula he suffered in the season's second game had been the crutch the Lakers and Mike D'Antoni leaned on even after the coach ditched the actual crutch he used to walk into his introductory news conference. Yes, Nash was the centerpiece of D'Antoni's successful run in Phoenix, but he was not the most significant addition to this Lakers team. That would be Dwight Howard. Nash improved the Lakers, Howard elevated them into the championship discussion.
Coming off that Pacers loss Tuesday night, the Lakers needed a demonstration of what they could do, the team they could be. The Grizzlies, Thunder, Spurs and Clippers had all shown at least flashes of elite-level play. The Lakers, with the exception of a hot-shooting night in Dallas against a slumping Mavericks squad, hadn't shown enough to demonstrate they warranted a spot in the second round of the playoffs at one of the other team's expense.
Then they uncorked a 71-point first half. Antawn Jamison scored 33 points and Jodie Meeks went off for 21 points, making 12 of 18 three-pointers between them. The last time the Lakers had two reserves score 20 points in the same game, one of them was Kobe Bryant. Yes, it had been that long -- since 1998, back when Bryant was a second-year player coming off the bench, in the Forum.
Some 14 ½ years and 28,000 points later, Bryant didn't even score 20 points this night in Staples Center. He didn't need to in the midst of this Lakers offensive explosion, a far cry from Tuesday night when he scored 40 of the Lakers' 77 points.
The offense is not designed for anyone to carry the bulk of the scoring load. Spread the court and spread the point distribution, one thing will lead to another. The Lakers went inside to Dwight Howard early, and he scored 12 of his 28 points in the first quarter, and that drew in the defense and opened space for the shooters. Up stepped Meeks, hitting five 3-pointers in the second quarter and stopping just short of a Jordan shrug.
Meeks said that D'Antoni "gives myself and the whole team confidence: shoot when you're open."
Jamison stressed the need to "set a tone and set an identity of what we're going to do."
There was a sense that this was all so necessary.
"It's the way we want to play," D'Antoni said.
They had the ideal opponent for it. Before the game, Nuggets coach George Karl lamented that the Nuggets had not been able to implement their style on many games. The same could be said of the Lakers. Unfortunately for Denver, even an attempt to play their style would fit right in with the Lakers' preference: faster tempo, more shots, less resistance.
The Nuggets couldn't be expected to be at their best for this game, not after playing a game that literally went down to the final buzzer at Golden State the previous night. Which brings up the very valid point I first heard from Jeff Van Gundy that fits into this raging debate about service to the fans: if teams are going to play in a nationally televised showcase, such as this ESPN broadcast, they shouldn't have to play the night before. The networks and the viewers won't be getting the best possible product.
The irony is the Spurs' game against the Heat was more competitive, even after the Spurs' main players had flown back to San Antonio. Bryant could have taken his helicopter back home and the Lakers still would have had enough points to beat Denver without his 14 points.
The Lakers are back to even in the won-lost column, at 8-8. For a team with such high standards, even is behind.
"Now we just have to find that consistency in our game so we can go on a winning streak," Gasol said.
Streaks have to start at one. This one had superlatives, such as tying a franchise record for most 3-pointers in a regulation game with 17 and setting the season high in scoring. By the end, the fans were rejoicing, Howard was making clown faces at the crowd and even draining a 3-pointer in the final decimal ticks of the clock.
That last shot wasn't needed. Everything else felt like an obligation finally fulfilled.