The Los Angeles Lakers came into Wednesday’s game at the AT&T Center against the San Antonio Spurs without Kobe Bryant –for the third straight game– and owners of a dismal 13-16 road record. The Spurs came into the night with every member of their big three (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan) ready to go after taking a night off against Utah, and also a league-best 23-4 home record on their side. The Lakers were the decided “underdogs” entering the Western Conference showdown, and it actually worked for the team with 16 titles in its franchise history. L.A. routed San Antonio 98-84 –without Bryant– stretching its lead to as many as 26 points in the final period.
Andrew Bynum was dominant. The Lakers controlled the boards, beating the Spurs 60-33 on the glass, with Bynum nearly matching the Spurs’ rebounding total on his own with a career-high 30 rebounds. Bynum joined George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor as the only Lakers to grab 30 boards in a game– something Shaq never was able to accomplish. Still, despite Bynum cleaning up on the defensive end –he also had two blocks– the Lakers 7’0 center stated after the game that he’ll “remember shooting horribly” before reflecting on his memorable performance. Bynum shot just 7-for-20 to finish with 16 points, while joining Minnesota’s Kevin Love as the only two players in the past 12 years to hit the 30-rebound mark. If it were anyone else, they would be celebrating such a feat, but Bynum understands that it will take a complete game from him for the Lakers to be successful down the stretch and in the playoffs.
This latest victory was a product of the Lakers understanding how simple they can make the game. L.A. improved to 2-1 without Kobe –the NBA’s leading scorer– who is still letting his sore left shin heal. After hobbling for much of the regular season, things are starting to look up for the Show. The Lakers have seven games left and are in third place in the West, 4 ½ games behind the Spurs for second place. Bynum is coming into his own as a superstar. The newly acquired Ramon Sessions has solved their point guard problem. Metta World Peace, who scored a season-high 26 points on 10-for-15 shooting against the Spurs, has returned to form. And Pau Gasol, who put up his third consecutive 20-point game in Bryant’s absence, has finally stepped up as a vocal leader, inspiring the rest of the team. Without Kobe, the Lakers are somewhat underdogs. With a healthy Black Mamba, the Lakers aren’t favorites, like Oklahoma City and Miami, but they still are title contenders, who have the championship pedigree to peak at the right time.
The Lakers have been freed by the burden of expectation this season, and if they continue to play like nothing is owed to them, like they did against the Spurs, a few teams will be upset in the postseason and it shouldn’t come as a surprise.