Commentary

Lakers bench: Ready for playoffs?

Updated: March 14, 2011, 1:57 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNLosAngeles.com

DALLAS -- Kobe Bryant is old. So are Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Ron Artest and Lamar Odom. None of them will admit this, of course, relying on birth certificates and the omission of Social Security checks on the near horizon to buffer their claims of youth and enthusiasm. But as the saying goes: It is what it is.

Each is older than 30, with at least a decade of NBA mileage on his body. That's 82 regular-season games, excluding playoffs. That's short summers, constant conditioning and travel. And that doesn't take into account the social life that comes with being a star athlete in Los Angeles, where Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington pay to see you!

[+] EnlargeLakers Bench
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesThe Lakers' bench is going to have to step up their game if the Lakers lose anyone to injury, not just Kobe Bryant.

With that in mind, we reflect on the Los Angeles Lakers' recent four-game road swing -- one that even Bryant thought nearly halted his season after he twisted an ankle. We stop asking the question of what the Lakers will do without the Black Mamba and start asking ourselves what will they do if they lose anybody?

Is Steve Blake really capable of filling in for Fisher? As the postseason plot thickens, how serviceable will Shannon Brown be in subbing for Bryant and providing the spark the Lakers appear to so desperately need at times? What about Matt Barnes and his injuries? Can he provide one spec of the toughness Artest gives you?

"They're all legitimate questions, no doubt," Brown said after the Lakers' win in Dallas on Saturday night. "But it's our job to have the answers. I know I feel that way.

"Sometimes I need to come in the game and give us a spark, using my athleticism to do it. Needless to say it's a work in progress. I'm getting there. But this ain't the time of year to be guessing. It's time to amp it up a little bit. I believe the rest of the guys feel that, too."

Actually, they don't.

After their loss in Miami on Thursday, the Lakers resembled a crew that has spent far too much time hanging with Odom, its resident epitome of cool. "We don't worry about anyone but ourselves," Odom said. "It's never a matter of what they do; just what we do." And you couldn't find one person who disagreed with him.

Bryant might as well have rolled his eyes, incredulous toward anyone who thinks the Lakers have cause for concern. Gasol speaks eloquently, appears concerned at times, but then smiles as he walks away -- indicative of someone who feels he's given the media just the ammunition it needs to stay off his back.

Andrew Bynum, the Lakers' young goliath at center, says it's simply a matter of the big boys making shots so his teammates will know better than to jack up jumpers all day.

"We have our personality," Odom said. "It's not for everyone to get. Just us."

The "us" part, however, is what the Lakers need to be concerned about because, even in victory, you could see remnants of difficulty.

Blake, in what may have been his best game as a Laker, hit two pivotal 3's against Dallas, raising the question, "Where has he been all season?" The same could be said for Brown's consistency.

"Hell, you can ask that about me, too," Barnes deadpanned, having returned for his third game after missing the past few months because of a leg injury. "I'm not where I want or need to be, although I'm getting there. It's gonna take time but I know we're running out of it. We've got a championship to win.

"When healthy, I know we have the pieces in place -- yes, including our bench -- to get the job done. But we've got to do it because, let's face it, the [starters] are going to need us."

Despite their bravado, their air of supremacy, the West will not be easily won.

The Lakers will either have to go through the San Antonio Spurs, or both the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs in the postseason, depending on whether they grab the No. 2 or No. 3 seeding in the West. Either way, nothing's guaranteed if all the Lakers have to rely upon is their starting five.

"We had a good bench game [in Dallas] that was better than we had in Miami," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who knows its importance better than anyone. "We thought we got punked a little bit in Miami. The bench was much more comfortable tonight; I thought they were very aggressive.

"For the speed that [Brown] gives us, he's got a 3-point shot that's a weapon. A lot of times Blake hasn't been aggressive, but tonight he was and he made important shots. That's what we need from those guys."

Especially now, as the season wanes, when champions are sometimes forced to speak more with their hearts than their bodies.

Bryant will tell you "heart is what it's all about." He's right on most occasions, excluding the few when bodies come up hobbled and trainers are cried for, reminding us all that perhaps the greatest champion of them all is Father Time.

Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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