With eight minutes remaining in the second quarter Tuesday night, Kobe Bryant walked out of the Staples Center tunnel, unbuttoned his charcoal suit coat, and took his seat on the Lakers bench.
Moments later, the San Antonio Spurs went on an 18-0 run.
The symbolism screamed as loudly as those fans cheering Justin Bieber on the kiss-cam.
The Lakers may not always like playing with Bryant, but they cannot play without him. For better or worse. In tenosynovitis and in health. Till shins do them part.
Or maybe you just like watching Devin Ebanks desperately drive the ball to nowhere?
All of the recent nonsensical talk that the Lakers are a more fluid and fun team without Bryant was rendered all wet and very sad Tuesday when the San Antonio Spurs pounded them into helplessness with a 112-91 victory.
The team is now 4-2 since Bryant was sidelined with shin problems, but can folks stop thinking that winning record actually means something?
Yes, it was only a week ago that these same Kobe-free Lakers played one of their most inspirational regular-season games in several years by beating the sleeping Spurs in San Antonio by 14. Absolutely, without Bryant the Lakers were impressive in also defeating playoff types Dallas and Denver.
Certainly, all this empowered those Kobe critics who felt that his absence energized Andrew Bynum and fueled Metta World Peace and turned the Lakers into a team again.
But on Tuesday, in a game against a superior opponent that showed up dressed in playoff intensity, we found out what kind of team. A mediocre team. A team without offensive focus or defensive fire. A team that, besides those great wins without Bryant, has now also lost by 20 in Phoenix and 21 again in San Antonio while winning by just two points against New Orleans.
With Bryant, even when the Lakers trailed by 14 points early in the fourth quarter Tuesday, they would have had a chance. Without Bryant, some fans didn't even make it that far, with the exodus beginning late in the third quarter, the earliest I've ever seen folks wearing Lakers jerseys hit the streets.
With Bryant, Bynum is not so easily double-teamed and harassed into only eight points after the first quarter, his night ending in typical immaturity when he angrily walked away from a postgame television interview. Without Bryant, World Peace doesn't throw up three nasty three-point attempts and … oh, come on, this shouldn't even require further explanation.
The Lakers committed 19 turnovers while allowing the Spurs to run and gun to 60% shooting, and if you don't think Kobe Bryant would have fixed some of that, well, seriously.
"I thought the tempo was in their favor, they stood us up," said Coach Mike Brown. "We did not look like we had, or tried to get control of the tempo. We kind of got out of character lately."
The bad news for Lakers fans is that Bryant's absence might eventually cost them the important, avoid-Oklahoma-City-until-the-conference-finals third seeding.
The hopeful news for Lakers fans is that during this absence, Bryant surely saw what they saw.
Were you watching, Kobe? They need you, but they don't need the gunning you. They don't need the I-am-the-only-option you. They don't need the myopic you. They need the championship you.
They need the Kobe who shoots no more than 20 times a game — his championship average — instead of the 23 shots he is taking now. They need the Kobe who trusts his teammates to win games in the final moments, which he used to do with the likes of Derek Fisher and Robert Horry.
You know the Kobe who was on the sideline diagraming plays for teammates on Sunday against the Mavericks? They need that Kobe diagraming those same plays for his teammates on the court.
Before the game, Brown said he hopes Bryant's rest will provide him with renewed strength, something the coach has been worried about all season.
"It's what we've been alluding to the whole time," Brown said. "It's a good time for him to take a little bit of time before going into a long playoff run."
Unspoken is that the Lakers also hope his rest will provide him with renewed perspective.
As Tuesday night proved once again, the Lakers desperately need Kobe Bryant. Now it is up to Bryant to once again prove how much.