Lakers forward Metta World Peace talks to point guard Ramon Sessions and… (Paul Buck / EPA )
The Lakers can't win the NBA title without Kobe Bryant. The Lakers also can't win the NBA title unless they maintain the teamwork that led to a 4-1 record without him.
How the Lakers strike that balance remains as uncertain as when Bryant fully heals his sore left shin. That moment probably won't happen Tuesday against the San Antonio Spurs. But it could happen soon. And when the Lakers reach that point, we'll see whether they truly live up to what they vividly outlined following the Lakers' 112-108 overtime victory Sunday against the Dallas Mavericks.
Lakers Coach Mike Brown and teammates agree on the team's tempo improving during Bryant's absence. By losing Bryant's league-leading 28.1 points per game, the Lakers simply stuck to other principles. Their refocus on defense held teams to under 100 points in four of those games. Playing inside-outside basketball ensured 22 points per game for both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol despite even more staggering double teams. Constant ball movement prevented a high number of turnovers (13.8) and enhanced the Lakers' three-point shooting (41.3%). Plenty of hustle plays ensured offensive production from Metta World Peace (17) and Matt Barnes (11.8).
"Everybody's playing extremely well individually to help us as a whole," Bryant told ABC's Heather Cox during the Lakers-Dallas game. "But it's still within the context of what we all do as a group."
But what will the group do once Bryant returns?
Brown still prefers designating Bryant as their perennial closer.
"It's still going to be the same," he said. "It's not going to change. Kobe is our guy and will always be our guy."
World Peace repeatedly emphasized how the team's "tempo is Drew." World Peace argued that the team discovered they temper that to match Bynum's speed instead of forcing the Lakers center to match theirs. That prompted me to ask World Peace in a group setting how the team can maintain such principles while also fully taking advantage of Bryant's scoring mentality.
"We have no choice or other options than to maintain focus and play together," he said. "Kobe will come back together and do great things. I can't wait for Kobe to come back."
Surely, everyone does. The Lakers sounded tantalizing about the unintended benefit that Bryant has also rested for the last week, a luxury hardly afforded to him as he logged 38.3 minutes per game, fourth highest in the NBA.
But how realistic is it for the Lakers to sharpen their collective focus when they know the Black Mamba can bail them out? How realistic is it for Bryant to slow down to ensure the Lakers play at Bynum's pace when he expects others to match his aggressiveness level?
The Lakers appeared to be striking that balance before Bryant's injury.
In four games through April, Bryant averaged 30.8 points on 56.6% shooting, while Bynum, World Peace, Gasol and Ramon Sessions played similar offensive roles. But expecting the Lakers to suddenly sustain that could be as unrealistic as believing the Lakers can maintain such long-term success without Bryant in the lineup.
Most of the season featured Bryant scoring at a prolific rate, nailing game-winning shots and fighting through both wrist and concussion-related injuries. Yet, it hardly looked pretty. His 43% shooting percentage marks his lowest since the 2004-05 season. Bryant's game-winners all bailed the Lakers out of bad performances. Aside from Bynum's production, Bryant's scoring both glossed over the team's lacking supporting cast and played a factor in its delayed development.
Bryant has proved that his basketball intelligence and work ethic remains unmatched even when he sits on the sideline donning expensive suits. Bryant advised teammates and coaches during timeouts, and they've intently listened.
But will both parties remain as amicable in ensuring balance between Bryant's greatness and teamwork?
"He's so aggressive. He wants and demands that post and wants the ball," Gasol said of Bryant. "Obviously, he's one of the best players in the world and he can do that. He will continue to do that. We just have to figure out how to get some other people going and active and translate on the defensive end. It will be all right."
The Lakers sure hope so. Their title hopes depend on it.
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