Utterly Fascinating: Their Finest Hour – by Sam Accardo

Surprising no one, when Kobe Bryant stepped out onto the floor with his severely sprained left ankle for the first quarter in Indiana, he had nothing to give. But what he gave to his team off the court is what gave the team the push it needed to finally believe that they don’t need Kobe to win a game. Sam Accardo breaks down why the Lakers looked so great in their 99-93 victory, and why they’re easily becoming a team to fear in the NBA Playoffs.

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      – photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s tough to say which player really gave them that extra effort to propel the team to beat the Pacers down the stretch. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash had excellent games combining for 35 points and 13 assists running their new favorite, the pick and roll. Dwight had a modest 12 rebounds and 20 points on 7 of 17 shooting, but his presence on the defensive end could not be overlooked adding 4 blocks to his stat line. The Lakers shot 50% from behind the line and Steve Blake had excellent numbers coming off the bench: 18 points, 5 out of 7 3-pointers, 7 dimes, and only 1 turnover. And with 2 blocks and 4 steals, he was just as effective on the defensive end. Coming off the bench, Antawn Jamison was a revelation with 60% shooting going 4 of 7 when he shot the 3-ball. Earl Clark had only 8 points, but when you consider that it was only on 6 shots and his effort got 6 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, and a block, it’s easy to see why Earl Clark’s efficiency has made him a starter.

But I think the one player who earned the “Most Stepped up in a Big Game Player” Award was Metta World Peace. Any Lakers fan knows that Metta World Peace’s 3 point shooting has dropped off in the past weeks. Against Atlanta only 3 nights ago, he made 2 3-point shots out of 9. And what confuses me most about MWP’s game as of late, is that he should know that if his perimeter shooting dropped off, he should just run to the basket and make a beautiful layup with his left hand. I’ve seen him do it consistently over the season, and it was a rare sight against Atlanta. But without Kobe Bryant on the floor, Metta knew it was time to step up. Taking a low amount of just four 3-point shots (and making 2 of them to boot), he decided to instead run to the basket and knock down 4 shots out of 8 from the field. With 3 dimes as well, Metta World Peace continued his high scoring pace, but increased the efficiency tenfold. He actually had 20 points and shot the same amount of 3’s in the last game against Atlanta; he just increased his percentages by not increasing the shot attempts when they weren’t falling and getting the easy baskets (like cleaning up one of the two missed 3’s from Blake with a quick rebound and a basket).

The reason why I think this was the greatest game this season for the Lakers, not in the sense of it being a showstopper (like the victory over Toronto), but in the sense that it was a game the Lakers can look back at and see how they were supposed to play like a team. It was because they didn’t have Kobe. At the end of the day, this is Kobe’s team. He has worked the hardest, scored the highest, and added new dimensions to his game in the face of people that said Kobe had reached his twilight years. But with that being said, it can be a crutch for his teammates. How often have you seen Steve Blake, Earl Clark, MWP, or even Dwight Howard attempt a play, get stopped, and then pass it back to Kobe to save the Lakers’ bacon, again? I’ll give you a minute, it’s going to take more than just your hands, trust me. But can you honestly blame them? Well, yeah, they’re the ones passing. But in any sport it’s easy to lose confidence in yourself when the going gets tough, and when you have Kobe as The Wolf to take care of your mistakes, why not give it to him? But what happens when you don’t have The Wolf to call up and take care of your problems. What happens when it’s up to you to save the play you just screwed up? You have to figure something out. And sometimes, when a player is being forced to figure out what to do in that situation, they can grow a lot in a short amount of time.

There is a blessing in disguise when star players go down. Whether it’s the relief of not being pulled by the coach because the star can’t come back in off the bench, or just knowing that’s it all up to the player, teams can galvanize themselves when stars go down. Hell, the Atlanta Hawks just did that to defeat the red-hot Lakers. But when the Lakers saw Kobe Bryant hobble onto the floor last night with only 1 ankle against the Eastern Conference second-seeded Indiana Pacers to do whatever he could try to and help his team, they got inspired more than any speech from Bryant ever could. Kobe has been doing everything he can to get his team to the playoffs, and it was time for his teammates to pay him back. When Kobe stepped onto the floor last night, that was when his teammates realized the bill was due.

Cameron, co-editor of this fine sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment blog, sent me a text last night that said in part “Kobe is tuff and it’s stupid that he would come back and not rest”. Now, on some level I agree with him, because it was a huge risk. Look what happened to Derrick Rose just last season in Game 1 of the first round of the Playoffs. But in the same season where Bryant took harsh criticism for criticizing Dwight Howard for not playing with his sore shoulder (whether you disagree or not with that), and almost every player has dealt with an injury at one point or another, it would say something in the bad way if he didn’t at least try to help his teammates on the floor. But that’s not why I think it was a smart decision to step on the court last night. It was a smart and inspiring decision, because it showed his teammates he’s not a basketball machine.

Kobe Bryant is 34, running on secret magical German knees, and has often times had some of his greatest stat lines when he’s playing injured. He has always played through the season with injured fingers, shoulders, arms, legs, you name it. After a while, it’s hard to imagine anything can truly stop him. But when Kobe played, with what “he described as the worst ankle sprain of his professional career”, and went a measly 0 for 4 and 2 assists in 12 minutes, it was clear Kobe was really injured. He showed his teammates that he was human. And after he sat down, the rest of the players finally realized the secret to playing with Kobe: “we’re both only human.” And for some reason, the confidence level rose last night. There is nothing you can take away from what the Lakers did last night. Playing on the road (which is usually bad news for the Lakers) against the only team in the East that people think can give the Heat a run for their money in the playoffs (don’t worry guys, Lebron’s got this), this wasn’t a cupcake team. Indiana is a top 4 team in the NBA and they’re also one of the best teams in the league defensively. So the fact the Lakers defeated Indiana in a game that could have gotten away from them, is absolutely, 100%, what proves that the Lakers have turned a corner from their old ways. And when you then check the box score and see that Kobe had no points and only 12 minutes on the floor, it’s impossible not to think the Lakers have an honest shot at the Finals.

Sam Accardo is a writer for Hefferbrew and wants no testy Lakers fan lambasting Cameron for his opinions. Besides, his comments helped Sam write one of the best Utterly Fascinating articles he has in a while. Enjoy the rest of the season folks, it’s only going to heat up like the temperatures in LA. Follow Sam on Twitter at @samcar455 and follow the @Hefferbrew on Twitter and Facebook as well.

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