Can The MWP Rebirth Survive Kobe's Return?

Apr. 7, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward (15) Metta World Peace sits next to injured guard Kobe Bryant on the bench in the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Lakers 125-105. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

I'm ready for the playoffs to start. Much as I typically enjoy watching the Lakers hammer on chumps, it's time for teams like the Warriors, who deliberately put almost no talent on the court in hopes of preserving their ping-pong ballage, to vacate the stage. I do applaud Mark Jackson and his crew of nobodies for their willingness to compete. From the early minutes it was uncomfortably obvious they'd get blasted tonight, yet they up and put in an honest day's work. It didn't matter. It didn't come close to mattering. Klay Thompson is a nice-looking rook, but when he's your alpha dog and Mikki Moore is your answer to Andrew Bynum, you're kind of just wasting everyone's time.

At this stage of the regular season, we're not learning anything new about the Lakers. Bynum, who had 17 points just in the first quarter, is huge and awesome when his head and body are right. Pau Gasol, who posted a triple double and was the game's signature player, has no peer when it comes to big-man passing touch. When those two are doing their thing (and remember when folks worried about their compatibility?), the Lakers are a tough out. So tough. We know this team's virtues and demerits. We know to have no idea whether on any given night they'll show up with focus and intelligence. All that's left is to see is whether they can do so four out of seven nights in four straight payoff series.

Well, that's almost what's left. First there's the small matter of welcoming back Kobe Bryant.

Kobe has missed seven straight games with a sore left shin. It sounds like a near certainty he won't miss an eighth. When asked tonight whether he'll play on Friday night against the Spurs he told reporters, "Why not? I'm good." A tense bout with a Western Conference contender that just plowed his teammates earlier in the week sounds like the occasion for his return to the fray, yes? I tend to think "statement games" are overrated as a concept, but I can absolutely see Kobe wanting to send a late-season message to an old enemy he might see in the playoffs.

When people speak of the problems Kobe sometimes poses for the Lakers' offensive flow, it's almost always in reference to the big men. Will Kobe let Drew get enough shots? Will he let Pau get touches so the Spaniard can work his playmaking magic? I might regret typing this, but these aren't my worries this time around. Kobe's stubborn and of course there will be times he fires up shots we wish he didn't, but anyone watching him on the bench can see his appreciation for how his fellow stars have been playing. I suspect he's noticed in particular how more and more teams are doubling Bynum more and more often. Drew's commanding it, and Kobe's smart enough to realize that letting Drew attract defensive attention will open up jumpers and dives into the lane for him that weren't there before. We could all witness a beautiful symbiosis.

My worries about Kobe's return, which are pretty minor, concern Metta World Peace. Granted, the MWP resurgence began with Kobe still in the lineup. Metta's breakout game was on April 6, when he had 23 points, four assists and two steals in a loss to the Rockets. That was the last time Kobe played before the achy shin knocked him out. I do think Metta has thrived in part because he's had the ball in his hands more. He's been filling a hybrid forward-initiator role similar to what Hedo Turkoglu did on the 2009 Magic but with less pick-and-roll. He's sometimes been the designed middle link between Ramon Sessions on the perimeter and Bynum or Pau near the rim.

When Kobe's back, everyone will have the ball in their hands a lot less, as it has to be. What worries me is the risk that Metta will feel uninvolved in/alienated from the action and revert to life as a spot-up shooter. He's not very good at that. It'd be a shame to lose the creativity he brings to the offense and no I can't believe I just said that either. In Kobe, Sesh and now Pau and Metta, the Lakers can put on the floor up to four guys who can create looks for others with their dishing. Five if you count Drew and his double-teams. Let's keep everyone involved and the enemy guessing.

Tonight's scrimmagey win puts the Lake Show at 40-23. The Clippers (39-23) are just a game behind, but the Lakers hold the tiebreaker. The Clips have four games left:

  • at Phoenix tonight,
  • at home against the Hornets on Sunday, and
  • a road back-to-back in Atlanta (Tuesday) and New York (Wednesday).

2-2 seems the worst they're likely to do. 3-1 is very possible. 4-0 isn't out of the question. Realistically the Lakers need to go 2-1 over their last three to feel secure about the third playoff seed. How big a deal is that? I'm not sure, to be honest, mostly because I'm not sure whether the Thunder or Spurs will finish first. That's a long way of saying, boxing out the Clips for the division title would be nice but I won't be totally enraged if it doesn't happen.










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Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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