When the Lakers were at 17-25 three months ago, statistics and history told us there was no way they’d be making the postseason. Three months later, without Kobe Bryant who gave his body up to put them in a position to enter the promised land, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are doing just fine on their own.
Are the Los Angeles Lakers a better team without Kobe Bryant? Their record, although in a very small sample size, suggests it. Still, it would be quite foolish to claim any team is better off without one of the greatest players in NBA history. But one thing is quite clear – Bryant makes it impossible for certain players to show their best basketball. Perhaps it’s more of a problem of the kind of personnel built around him, meaning the GM f&^%$# up, but it doesn’t change the fact that Bryant’s way of basketball, not for the first season, might not have been the best way to maximize the talents in this squad.
Dwight Howard, first and foremost, is special because of his defensive abilities. He won’t go down as a center who changed the way the game is played in the paint on offense, but he certainly is a force of nature in the paint, finishing the game with 18 rebounds and 4 blocks, completely closing down the way to the basket, including two big rejections on James Harden in overtime. It was easy to “hate” on Howard during the season, but the feeling is it turned into somewhat of a witch hunt, with him being the easiest person to blame for the problems.
And while some thought that Pau Gasol not playing well was an issue of bad coaching by Mike D’Antoni and the over-dominant presence of Dwight Howard, the last few games tell a very different story. The Lakers are red hot because Gasol is playing like his old-self, finishing the 99-95 win over the Rockets with a triple double (17 points, 20 rebounds, 11 assists) and averaging 17.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 6.6 assists in April, looking a lot more comfortable in his new role.
While Steve Blake is no Steve Nash, we suddenly see ball movement from the Lakers. Jodie Meeks isn’t afraid to hang onto the ball for more than 2 seconds and try to create something with his speed, including an out-of-nowhere dunk in overtime while a lazy James Harden stood by and watches. Antawn Jamison is suddenly the off-the-bench scorer he should have been from the get-go. The Lakers, dare we say, look more confident, and more free, than they have all season.
Underdogs might be the best way to get emotion out of this team, entering their series with the San Antonio Spurs as heavy underdogs. Finishing 7th in the West, barely scraping their way into the playoffs, does that to a team’s perception. They’ll probably not make it, but it seems that whoever was looking for the way the Lakers should be playing this season, found it in the last few games with Bryant not even dressed to participate. Sometimes, the only way to make way for change is being lucky enough for change to happen on its own.