The Lakers finally became a team Wednesday night in Dallas
On a mild January night in Dallas the 2009-10 edition of the Los Angeles Lakers became a team.
They may have shared the same locker room before, traveled on the same plane, worn the same uniforms and dealt with the same L.A. traffic on the 405, but prior to Wednesday's 100-95 win, there was something missing out on the floor.
All it took was Kobe Bryant's suffering through some debilitating back pain to find it.
The game's signature moment might have been Bryant's pull-up jumper with 28.9 seconds remaining to break the tie at 95-95, but this story wasn't about the Mamba's heroics the way so many others have been this season.
It's about what the rest of his team did to make it possible for that moment to exist.
Coming into the game the Lakers were in crisis mode -- or as much as a team that's leading the West in wins and the league in winning percentage can be. Pau Gasol was out of the lineup for his sixth straight game with a strained left hamstring. The Lakers were playing on the second night of a back-to-back against a team with revenge on its mind after L.A. embarrassed the Mavs by 35 points just 10 days ago. A slew of other injuries to the rest of the crew had about half the roster listed as game-time decisions, and a four-game road losing streak was also weighing the Lakers down.
But, collectively they found their calm.
All in the midst of a juiced crowd that came to the arena to see the best player in Mavs franchise history, Dirk Nowitzki, reach the 20,000-point plateau.
"The idea coming into tonight's game [was] just to continue to search for what it's going to take for us collectively as a team to play the type of game we need to play," Derek Fisher said. "Tonight was closer to that."
Bryant started his day at 5 a.m., when his massage therapist arrived at his hotel door after catching a midnight flight from Santa Monica to come to Bryant's aid and go through four hours of deep tissue massage. Before the game Bryant admitted to wondering what he was doing even trying to give it a go.
In the first five minutes of the game, L.A. took a 14-7 lead and Bryant didn't have a shot attempt. What he did have, however, was the assurance that his team could handle its business with or without him. It's kind of like the feeling a father gets when he lets go of his kid's bicycle seat for the first ride after taking off the training wheels and sees the kid ride away as straight as an arrow.
"It's about time," Bryant, who finished with just 10 points and lay prone on the sideline for the entire second quarter, said he thought at that time. "What the [heck] are you guys waiting for? You're sitting around, waiting for me to bail your [behinds] out all the time. Get going, because it makes us a better team. Don't worry about me."
Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest took command from the start. Bynum had 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting in the first and finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Odom took a season-high 20 shot attempts, something Phil Jackson practically has to beg him to do, and registered 16 points and 14 boards. Artest racked up 16 and 11 and was as efficient as can be, ending up 5-for-5 from the floor and 5-for-6 from the free throw line.
It was also the first game that Artest truly saw how this team earned the championship rings they all received back on opening night, when Artest could only watch and wonder just how sweat gets turned into diamonds.
"We've been down that road where we know our potential and what it could be," Artest said. "From here on out we've got to give more effort."
Everybody got into the act.
Jordan Farmar scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half to counter any scoring spurts that Dallas started.
Luke Walton played in just his second game in two months and tied the team lead in assists with four in just 14 minutes and canned a couple jumpers to boot.
Josh Powell hit a 3 from the corner. D.J. Mbenga checked into the game in the first half and immediately forced Drew Gooden into an air ball. Shannon Brown scored six points and did Dean Smith's old Tarheels point of recognition when Farmar hit him with a pass on the break. Sasha Vujacic braced his strained hamstring to chip in a couple free throws to give his team the lead before the half. Even Adam Morrison, who didn't play a single minute, did his part by sprinting out to half court after an early timeout to wrap his arm around Walton and pat him on the chest for how well he played without having his wind back.
It wasn't the only time Lakers teammates looked out for one another Wednesday. Odom playfully boxed with Artest to calm him down after a foul call went against him just before the half. Artest refocused and ended up hitting three free throws before the teams went to the locker room to push L.A.'s cushion to four.
Bryant threw his arm around Bynum to keep him aggressive in the second. Fisher threw his arm around Bryant to see how he was holding up in the third. There were enough memorable displays of team camaraderie to fill a montage with the "Chariots of Fire" theme song playing behind it.
The Lakers were so in tune with one another, at times they looked like a rock band during the last song of the night. Only, instead of listening to the drummer go off for a solo, followed by the guitarist shredding the ax and the next guy slapping the bass, Lakers fans saw Bynum being "the rock," as Jackson called him in the first quarter, Farmar calling his number in the third and Odom swishing jump shots in the fourth.
It was the Lakers' first character win. The first game they'll be able store in their brains and draw upon in the waning moments of a tight playoff game come springtime and think, "Yes, we will win this."
"This is something that we can look back on and know that everybody is capable of playing winning basketball," Farmar said. "We came through. It's still new for a lot of us. We haven't done it. ... If we can build on it and continue to play the right style of basketball every night it's going to work out for us. We're a pretty good team."
That they are, for the first time all season.
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