BROOKLYN — By any means necessary. That’s Los Angeles Lakers’ new mantra. Hollywood’s team of stars now has little choice but to get hardened and gritty if they’re going to get themselves back to the playoff stage.
On Tuesday, the Lakers gutted out a character-building, 92-83 victory in Brooklyn. Despite the absences of two starters — Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard — who have won a combined four Defensive Player of the Year awards, they held a top-10 offensive team to just 83 points on 92 possessions. It was L.A.’s sixth win in their last seven games, the best stretch of basketball they’ve played all season.
“It feels good to be able to pull out a win like this,” Kobe Bryant said afterward. “But now, reality kind of sets in.”
Reality is another injury. With less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Pau Gasol injured his right foot. After the game, the Lakers called it a plantar fascia sprain, but Gasol said afterward that he “felt a pop” in the bottom of his foot. He’s set to have an MRI in Boston on Wednesday to determine the full extent of the damage.
For Bryant, despite the Lakers’ much-needed and much-deserved win, the night was an overall negative.
“It got worse,” Bryant said three times when asked about the situation his team is in. “We can’t afford to lose Pau for a long stretch. We need to get him back.”
It’s been noted that the Lakers are better with just one of the Gasol/Howard pairing on the floor than they are with both. But with neither? Yikes.
That’s the situation they may be facing for the remaining three games of their road trip. Howard is dealing with a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder and says he’s not in any rush to get back. And nobody sounded very optimistic about Gasol’s status.
“I’m very, very concerned, to say the least,” Bryant said.
Of course, no Gasol and no Howard was the situation the Lakers faced in the final 3:52 in Brooklyn on Tuesday. And they managed to survive. They also survived stretches at the start of both the second and fourth quarters with five guys not named Nash, Bryant or Gasol on the floor.
“We had to really scrap,” Steve Nash said. “Guys were guarding people bigger than them at every position. And we had to rotate and scramble and still get on the glass and try to get some boards. So that was what I was most proud of.
Earl Clark, who recorded his seventh double-double of the last 15 games on Tuesday, and was tasked with defending All-Star Brook Lopez down the stretch. Clark has played a critical role of late and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni believes in him — as does the fifth leading scorer in NBA history.
“He’s just a really good player,” Bryant said, adding that the Lakers “would be in deep crap” if they didn’t have Clark, who was essentially a throw-in in the Howard trade.
The Lakers now believe that they can get through some adversity. Things changed a couple of weeks ago, and they’ve seemingly put their issues behind them, even if Gasol isn’t happy about his role (when Howard is healthy).
“We’re more of a team,” Nash said. “We’re sharing the ball. We’re playing better defensively. We have a sense of cohesion and camaraderie that’s improving. I think that brings empowerment, that brings belief, enthusiasm. Everyone’s contributing. In some ways, we’ve turned a little corner. But we’ve still got a long ways to go.”
We think of the Lakers as a team of stars that can get by on talent. They’re not exactly an underdog when they’ve still got Nash and Bryant in their backcourt, and they’ll get World Peace back from his one-game suspension on Thursday in Boston. But to get through this stretch and keep their playoff hopes alive, they’re going to need more toughness than talent.
“I think going through what we went through at the start of the season has kind of gave us a little more fortitude, a little more grit,” Bryant told NBA TV. “So when these things happen to us, we don’t get discouraged. We just keep on battling and continue to think strategically.”