With the Lakers possibly looking at the end of a tumultuous season, there remains several signs of glimmering hope.
They enter Game 7 of their first-round playoff series Saturday against the Denver Nuggets with plenty of history on their side. The Lakers haven't lost Game 7 of an NBA playoff series since the 1969 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has gone 4-1 in previous Game 7s, and helped secure Game 5 in a 2000 first-round matchup with the Sacramento Kings.
The Lakers now receive a welcome addition not yet seen in the postseason: small forward Metta World Peace, who has served a seven-game suspension for throwing a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City guard James Harden on April 22. There's no acclimation period for World Peace, who will start in place of second-year forward Devin Ebanks.
"We don't have much to lose," Lakers Coach Mike Brown said. "So we're going to play him."
There's plenty of uncertainties surrounding World Peace's return. Will he play the 32 minutes he averaged last month? Will he manage to duplicate the 14.1 points on 47.3% shooting during that stretch? Will the Lakers eagerly rely on his presence when they have issues to correct with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and their overall focus?
World Peace coyly said "we'll have to wait and see." But Lakers guard Kobe Bryant made a bold prediction on how he'll fit in with the team.
"I don't think he's going to be rusty defensively at all," Bryant said. "His shot, maybe. He's been working extremely hard so that might not even be an issue."
That's because Bryant noticed World Peace arriving to practices early and leaving them late, working on various exercises involving weight training, conditioning and shooting drills. Even during the suspension, World Peace could practice with the team during their normal times as well as morning shoot-arounds on game days. He even traveled with the team and engaged in pregame warmups so long as he left the arena two hours before tipoff.
There's tangible evidence that supports Bryant's contention that World Peace "did all the right things to prepare himself for this game." According to figures provided on his Twitter account, World Peace also trimmed down. He weighed 268 pounds early in training camp on Dec. 22 and dropped down to 246 pounds by April 30. His body fat percentage decreased from 35.7 to 21.4 over the same period.
"I made a lot of progress when I was playing," World Peace said. "I sustained it pretty well. I'm satisfied and happy with where I'm at right now."
The Lakers surely hope that translates into on-court success. The Lakers' defense has allowed Denver to average 112.5 points in the last two games. They've lacked the flexibility in having someone of World Peace's stature to defend both guards and forwards. The Lakers have shot 40.5% from the field during that stretch. And with exception of Bryant, hardly anyone on the Lakers brought the necessary work ethic to close out the series.
"I expect him to come out and play with the tenacity that he's known for," Bryant told reporters after Game 6, a troubling 113-96 loss. "He's the one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and play with no fear. So, I'm looking forward to having that by my side again."
That proved to be an obvious jab at the Lakers' frontline.
Pau Gasol had fewer points (three) and rebounds (three) than Bryant had intravaneous fluids (four) as he tried to combat his flu symptoms. Bynum's 27 points in the last two games equaled the same amount of points he scored in Game 2.
"It's a comment. It's an opinion," Gasol said. "A lot of times opinions are determined by the timing of things. Obviously we're all happy to get Metta back tomorrow. Hopefully he'll be a big contrbibutor. I'm glad Kobe relies on him that much."
Bryant tempered his criticism before Friday's practice, but it still remained clear he held World Peace's competitive level in higher regard than his other teammates.
"My type of competitiveness and energy level is not something I expect every guy to have," Bryant said. "That's not to say that they don't have it; it's just that Metta's intensity is similar to my own. It's a simple as that."
What isn't as simple is predicting what World Peace's arrival will do to the team in Game 7.
"All bets are off," World Peace said. "All in. Whatever we have to do as a team. It's not about what I can and what I can't do. It's about really what I'm going to do."