Lakers need to learn from this loss
The first four games the Lakers played without Kobe Bryant, they won by an average of 13.5 points. It hardly looked as if the Lakers missed him either, as they ended their nine-game losing streak at Portland, avenged a 20-point loss to the Spurs from earlier in the season, broke the Jazz's nine-game winning streak on the road in Utah and suffocated the Warriors' will in the final part of the game.
There's no need for the clutch strengths of the game's ultimate closer when the game isn't close.
The fifth one was a different story as the Lakers on Thursday were sans Kobe again but tangled in a tight game with the Celtics down the stretch.
Had Bryant been on the court, who knows, maybe he makes his sixth game-winning shot of the season and the Lakers don't lose 87-86 after a last-second 20-foot heave by Derek Fisher hit nothing but air.
The Lakers couldn't hitch their wagon to Bryant and let him bail them out, but they were able to navigate a new Kobe-less course in the fourth quarter that put them in position to win the game.
Odom, who has been criticized for not putting his talents to work and disappearing too often, took ownership of the game. There was a free-spirited quality to Odom's game that's rarely displayed. He morphed from power forward to point guard at the snatch of a ball, turning several defensive rebounds into transition opportunities he directed including one board he kept for himself and turned into a game-tying 3-pointer to tie the score at 80-80 with 8:16 remaining.
"If I kind of take my time and probe a little bit, the floor is open," Odom said. "I tried to make plays."
There was an overall vibrant nature about Odom that made him seem downright bubbly. He smiled at the referees after calls went against him, smiled when Kevin Garnett swung his elbows within beard-shaving distance of his face after a jumpball was called and smiled in the gut-wrenching idle moments before the ball was inbounded for the Lakers' final play.
Part of that comes from playing Boston. Odom said earlier in the week he planned to hop a flight to Las Vegas after practice Wednesday to attend the MAGIC trade show to promote his Rich Soil clothing brand. When he realized he would be cutting into his Celtics prep time, he quickly canceled the trip.
Maybe part of his focus came from playing without Bryant. Odom felt comfortable letting it all hang out.
Vujacic, who averaged just five minutes per game in the five games before Bryant started to sit out because of his ankle sprain and tendon strain, had all six of his points during the 14-0 stretch and finished with four rebounds, two assists and one block. He barely gets to see the court when Bryant is healthy and he helped turn a potential blowout into a barn burner Thursday.
Every Lakers player on the court in the game's closing minutes found something from which they can learn. Something they can take with them and reference when Bryant is back and demanding the ball in the fourth quarter of a playoff game.
Pau Gasol, L.A.'s unquestioned second-best player, learned he needs to assert himself in that role come money time. Even though Fisher missed the final shot, it was Gasol's turnover with 31.3 seconds left and the Lakers down by one that was just as costly.
Gasol caught the ball in the short corner with plenty of time on the shot clock, but instead of working to get himself a shot in the post, he flipped it to a cutting Shannon Brown along the baseline and the Celtics recovered the errant pass.
"I should have held it and made sure I took care of that possession myself," Gasol said. "That's what happens when you're too unselfish. When a teammate's open, no matter what situation, you try to hit him and make the right play. But the right play at that point was keeping the ball and attacking myself and I didn't do that."
Coach Phil Jackson should have learned something about his personnel as well. He has said with Bryant out, if one of the Lakers' games came down to a final possession, he'd want Fisher with the ball in his hands. Yet a Fisher foray to the hoop with 1:53 left came up empty (which shouldn't be surprising considering that according to HoopData.com, he's shooting only 39.2 percent at the rim this season) and Fisher's final attempt was even more hapless.
Brown should have learned, as if he didn't know already, that just because he's the starting shooting guard it doesn't mean he has to take the same shots Bryant does. His behind-the-back dribble, pull-up, fadeaway jumper hit the back rim with 1:11 remaining. It was the kind of shot Bryant makes look easy, but it was ultimately an opportunity wasted for Brown to work to get a better shot.
Andrew Bynum shot an airball from 13 feet late in the game after an extended jab-step routine against Kendrick Perkins that ground the offense to a halt. Ron Artest took a difficult shot in the lane with Paul Pierce all over him and help collapsing from the weak side just because he wanted to go chest-to-chest with Pierce it seemed. They both should have learned the value of each possession in a game like this.
The Lakers weren't completely lost without Bryant in a close game, but they were off just enough to lose. That's how crucial execution and mental toughness is when you play a team like Boston or any other title contender.
"We were right there," Odom said. "We didn't go through them right at the end. You got to go through a team to beat them. Especially a team that's got players and are well coached and are tough like the Celtics. We didn't go right through them at the end."
Hopefully there were lessons learned that will go through the minds of these Lakers in the fourth quarter when Kobe returns.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.