Lakers guard Steve Blake shoots over Spurs guard Cory Joseph during Sunday's… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
On the first night of the rest of their season, the Lakers without Kobe Bryant looked like Steve Blake's bright purple low-cut sneakers.
They were ungodly ugly, but delightfully fun. It's impossible to imagine them taking more than a few steps before splitting apart at their bubble gum seams, but it's going to be interesting to watch.
"Hey, you're talking about them, right?" said a smiling Blake.
He was referring to the shoes, but he could have been talking about the team, which defeated somnolent San Antonio, 91-86, Sunday to move within a breath of the playoffs.
It was their first game without Bryant, who underwent season-ending surgery Saturday to repair a torn Achilles' tendon.
It was a game marked by one question with two answers.
No Bryant? Big problems. The Lakers shot 37%, they seemed lost for long stretches, and they had no idea who would take the last heave at the end of a quarter or a shot clock. Pau Gasol was trying so hard, he missed 14 shots. Chris Duhon was so unsettled, in four minutes he made three turnovers. The Spurs rattled Dwight Howard with that cliché Hack-a-Dwight in the third quarter and held new Lakers floor leader Blake to a basket in the second half.
"A couple of guys forgot what they were doing,'' acknowledged Coach Mike D'Antoni.
No Bryant? Big dreams. The Staples Center fans cheered and rattled their noise sticks as if this were the real Lakers team playing a real Spurs team. Their inspired fellas held the Spurs to 37% shooting and outrebounded them by a dozen. Later, the Lakers bounced and beamed through the locker room as if they were a mid-major college team in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"We're going to fight to the end," Howard said. "We have a chance to win, go to the playoffs, and make history.''
But that history will have to be made against teams more focused than these Spurs, who were missing Manu Ginobli and who only played Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter for scant minutes in the fourth quarter. Moments after the two starters left the game with 8:58 remaining, the Spurs tied the score, then stood around as the Lakers pulled away.
"You expect them backed into a corner and then bring it as they did, trying to find that new identity without" Bryant, said the Spurs' Tim Duncan.
It is certainly a different identity. But do not be confused about the results of their first attempt to forge it. It is not a better identity. It is not even close. With Howard dominating the action inside, and guys such as Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks sinking three pointers, they play more like old-school Orlando.
For as long as these Lakers hang around — it appears probable now they will survive to face Oklahoma City in a brief first-round playoff series — they will be fun to cheer, but hard to watch.
They miss Bryant's scoring. They miss his focus. They miss his dagger.
Their first attempt at a last-second shot? It occurred at the end of the first quarter, and guess who took it? Nobody. Duhon botched a pass to Blake.
Their second attempt at a last-second shot arrived at the end of the second quarter, with Gasol taking it, and missing it, and Howard tipping it in … and everyone so excited, nobody guarded Gary Neal at the other end of the court, where he threw up a three-pointer to tie the game at the halftime buzzer.
"Our last shots are going to be a work in progress," said Blake.
The entire team is a work in progress, which is why, perhaps, they were fun in spite of themselves.
It was cool to watch Howard swaggering through the lane like he was the boss again. From the moment he scored six of the Lakers' first 10 points on a hook and two dunks, it was clear he suddenly felt at home for perhaps the first time since coming to Los Angeles.
"Tonight, everybody had the green light to show what they could do,'' said Blake.
It was also neat to watch Blake run the floor as he once did at Portland. He scored 18 first-half points after knocking four of five three-point attempts while making great decisions everywhere.
"Kobe is like a director out there, which is something I've always tried to do,'' said Blake. "Handling the ball more is more of my comfort level.''
Not everyone was so comfortable. Bryant actually called the Lakers locker room at halftime to give Gasol a pep talk. That will probably be the first call of many. The brief remainder of this Lakers season will be undoubtedly filled with similarly odd sights and strange moments. Enjoy it while it lasts.