President John F. Kennedy once said “when written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”
That’s the conundrum the Lakers were faced with when the unthinkable happened: Kobe Bryant took a night off to rest a nagging shin injury. With only a handful of games left in the season, the Lakers are still fighting for that all important home court advantage in the first round, Kobe’s timing to sit out couldn’t have been any worse.
Kobe Bryant cynics have been questioning his penchant for hero basketball for much of the season with the development of Andrew Bynum. With the injury to Kobe, Bynum finally had the chance to step in the spotlight he’s desired since he left high school for the NBA.
The first Kobe-less game went as expected: the Lakers had no offensive flow, Steve Nash waltzed around their shoddy defense and the Lakers were lucky to only lose by 20 to the Phoenix Suns.
The next game was even harder to watch as a Laker fan. Even without Kobe Bryant, the Lakers had a major advantage at nearly every position against the Western Conference’s worst team, the New Orleans Hornets. And did I mention the Hornets were missing Eric Gordon, Jarrett Jack and Trevor Ariza, the only three players on the Hornets’ roster who could possibly give the Lakers any trouble? That game had blowout written all over it.
But it wasn’t to be, the Lakers looked more lifeless than the game before. After jumping out to an early nine point lead, the Hornets turned the tables on LA in the second half and led 79-71 at one point.
They allowed Marco Belinelli (20 points off of 7-15 shooting) and Greivis Vasquez (18 points and 11 assists) of all people, to torture them all night long with Belinelli’s shooting and Vasquez’s dribble penetration conjuring up nightmares of the JJ Barea and Jason Terry tandem that wreaked havoc on the Lakers last May.
To their credit the Lakers rolled out of bed just in time, mounting a late comeback to escape New Orleans with a 93-91 win.
Then Wednesday night rolled around: a pivotal match up against the San Antonio Spurs who sit just above the Lakers in the standings in second place. With Kobe still out, and Gregg Popovich deciding not to rest his “old” stars in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, I assumed the worst.
To my surprise the Lakers came out and delivered their strongest effort of the season, dismantling the Spurs 94-84 in front of their own fans. Andrew Bynum finally assumed the role of defensive anchor and channeled his inner Kevin Love by collecting a career-high 30 rebounds. Metta World Peace decided he wanted to be Ron Artest again, scoring 26 points, his highest output as a Laker.
Everything was perfect about Wednesday night’s team victory. They played great defense by holding the Spurs to 40.7 percent shooting while out-rebounding them, 60-33. Six players finished in double figures: MWP, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes.
As the game clock was winding down to zero, Steve Blake was dribbling out the remaining seconds, out of nowhere Andrew Bynum ran up to Blake demanding the ball from him.
To cap things off when asked about his career defining performance after the game, Bynum answered: “I shot the ball like sh*t.”
Lest we forget the victory in New Orleans also wasn’t without controversy, either, as Metta World Peace curiously almost threw the ball away to Jason Smith with a second left in the game.
The Lakers didn’t miss Kobe Bryant the player in the last two games as much as they missed Kobe Bryant the on-court leader.
Say what you want about Kobe Bryant off the court, call him a cheater, a narcissist, a selfish prick or all of the above. But on the court, there’s no one, I repeat no one, you’d rather have to go war with you, just ask Larry Bird.
The man didn’t get to five championships by messing around.
You can argue that Bryant might’ve repeated his atrocious 3-20 shooting performance against the Hornets.
You can argue that if Bryant would have played against the Spurs, the Lakers’ offence would’ve never been as balanced as it was.
What you can’t argue is Bryant would’ve closed both of those games properly.
In the Hornets game, he would’ve done everything he possibly could to get open on that final possession when MWP was searching frantically for a teammate to pass to; and in the Spurs game he would’ve given Bynum an ear-full if he tried to pull his late-game antics.
As the season has progressed, it’s clear that Bryant has learned to trust Bynum more and more in big games. Remember when Bryant called the play on the fly to feed Bynum in the post to seal the Celtics game?
Andrew Bynum is undoubtedly the future of the franchise, heck if he continues to put up performances like Wednesday night’s, he might very well be the present as well. It’s unfortunate his maturity level doesn’t match his age. Which is why the Lakers need Kobe Bryant more than ever, no not to shoot 28 times a game to score 30 points, but to be the Lakers’ most versatile weapon on the floor and harness the abilities of the twin towers at his disposal.
With Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher gone, naturally Bryant has assumed the conch as the voice of reason in the Lakers’ locker room.
He might not be able to score as effortlessly as Kevin Durant does anymore, or even take over games like LeBron James does on a nightly basis but he still can lead a mismatched group of Lakers deep into the playoffs.
This past weekend, I wrote that Kobe has been overlooked when it comes to the MVP award his entire career. Over these past three games when he’s sat out, it’s become clear to everyone around the NBA that Bryant may not be the most valuable but he is the most irreplaceable.
President Kennedy delivered his iconic quote during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960’s. If Kobe doesn’t come back healthy sooner rather than later, the Cuban Missile Crisis in Dallas might not be the only crisis in the NBA.