Lakers find their groove in Boston
A 92-86 win over the Celtics finally showed the type of effort L.A. had been seeking
There was still time, he figured. Space to get it together. Room to grow back into what everyone still knows they are: the best team in the NBA, whenever they play as hard and as disciplined as they did Thursday night in an impressive 92-86 win over the Celtics.
But inside, Bryant has been boiling. No, burning.
He has been down this lamentable path too many times over the years and seen too many ways it can snake off in the wrong direction.
Finally, in the sweet afterglow of the type of game that has been way too long in coming, he cracked.
Asked how he remained so patient with this team's struggles, Bryant paused, rolled his eyes and said, "Zen."
He wanted to say more. He started to say more.
Patience has become one of his least-sung virtues in the latter stages of his career. One word said enough.
"Zen," he repeated a little bit louder.
The Lakers beat the Celtics on Thursday night by doing everything they were supposed to do and should've been doing all season.
They followed coach Phil Jackson's game plan almost to the letter. They were disciplined and focused. And they stayed that way even in the face of a 15-point deficit in the first half.
They nailed just about every talking point everybody has been talking about during this winter of inexcusable losses.
Ball movement, cohesive defense, playing inside out to start the game and getting the bigs involved. The win was so systematic, it almost felt like clicking through a PowerPoint presentation.
"We executed our game plan, we definitely did," Lakers guard Shannon Brown said. "You couldn't ask for more.
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"We definitely played like a team. We played together, and that's the only way we're going to win. Playing together as a team, offense and on defense, moving the ball, being collective on defense, being one, that's the way we're going to get it done."
So where has that been all season?
"That's a good question," Brown said, laughing. "But I guess you could ask that to anybody in their occupation."
Even in the first half, when their defense was too feathery and Boston couldn't seem to miss, the Lakers did what they were supposed to do.
Bryant and Derek Fisher took only six shots in the first half but combined for seven assists. The starting frontcourt of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol went a combined 9-for-15 from the field for 24 points.
For the Lakers, that has become a 1-plus-1 equation.
"You have to show that you're an inside team when you have the size we have, and you have to be persistent about it," Jackson said. "I thought those big guys carried us for a long stretch of the game."
With the bigs involved and impacting the game, the floor was open for Bryant to do what he is still the best in the NBA at doing: closing.
He scored 20 of his team-high 23 points in the second half on an assortment of jumpers and drives through traffic.
It was vintage Bryant. So good, and so familiar that it made you realize how infrequently he has been in position to do that this season.
"[In the first half] they surrounded me, so I hit the open man," Bryant said.
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"I wanted to be more aggressive in the first half, but I didn't want to force it too much. I wanted to keep my guys in their game a little bit. Start of the second half, I just forced it. The game wasn't coming to me, so I took it."
There was a touch of sarcasm to that last statement, another hint at the patience he has been forced to latch onto this season. A little jab at critics who poke him for shooting too much or forcing the action whenever his teammates are too deferential.
Yes, he took over in the second half. But that's what he's supposed to do.
It's what happened in the first half that was really remarkable. Even when they were down, even when the Celtics were rolling, the Lakers executed and trusted their game plan.
"Our first half we didn't play our best, but we were moving the ball and we were getting the ball where we wanted to," Gasol said. "That was an improvement, and it put us in a really good place to start off the second half as we did.
"It makes a difference because we're creating penetration, we're aggressive, we get our big guys going and we're utilizing our size. Sometimes it happens more than others.
"I'm glad it happened tonight."
So is this it? Have the Lakers finally tapped into the sweet spot they've been searching for all season?
Bryant rolled his eyes and channeled a little Zen, again.
"It depends on where we go from here."
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.