It was only Kobe Bryant's indomitable will and peerless drive to win that kept us from fully declaring this a lost season, but at this juncture, perceptions have to give way to reality. Every Laker starter this season has suffered a significant injury except Dwight Howard and he has been in the long process of recovering from one. The team has endured a coaching change, an adjustment between multiple systems, and dealing with expectations despite having almost no opportunity to form the foundation every championship team needs to succeed in the form of chemistry. There is little question that the Lakers faced tall odds against their first round opponent even with Kobe, but at this point, an ignominious postseason loss seems all but a certainty, especially with Steve Nash on the pine. Yes, the basketball gods have been sufficiently cruel at this juncture to not only take Kobe from us, but to not allow us to take comfort in the playmaking of an all-time great in his absence.
So, how does a team recover from something like this? Bill Simmons famously coined the "Ewing Theory" to explain certain teams performing better without their primary star as they group together and increase their effort and cohesiveness, but we can safely say that it's a load of crap in this situation. It does, however, offer a blueprint for what the team can do in Kobe's absence, namely come together and try to salvage some of the chemistry that they never were able to develop with the entire team. There's no expectations without Kobe, so that in an odd way, should be a liberating experience. Just go out and play and see where it takes the team and fight valiantly until the last seconds. It's what Kobe would have done.
- Kobe Bryant -- Perhaps the most insane thing out of this entire episode was a hobbled Kobe sinking two threes down the stretch and then nailing two last free throws after he ruptured his Achilles, a superhuman feat that is quite incredible when one thinks on it. It would seem remiss to cover Kobe's game after the events that have transpired, but perhaps it's fitting that even a tired Kobe who was gimpy for most of the game still put up 34/5/4 on a 60.6 TS%. It was a fine performance fitting of his legend even as the Lakers have to deal with the aftermath of this season without him. Still, he will be back and this will not be the last memory we have of Kobe Bryant on a basketball court. That we can be assured of.
- Pau Gasol -- Lost in the saga of Kobe's injury was that Pau had a monstrous game, pulling out a triple double with a 26/11/10 that fully encapsulated how much he dominated this game. Whether from midrange or in the post, Pau dissected the Golden State defense with pinpoint passing and a full display of his arsenal of post moves. He appears almost fully recovered from his injury and is almost unrecognizable from the Pau that started the year. He has far more pep in his step and destroyed a set of Warriors interior defenders that had no business keeping with him in any facet of the game on offense. That the Lakers got this Pau back now with all the other circumstances surrounding the team is truly a bittersweet morsel for Laker fans to swallow.
- Dwight Howard -- Dwight wasn't his dominant self on defense, as he only corralled a rather miserable seven rebounds, but he had a spectacular game on the offensive end and a rare game of good free throw shooting from him sustained the Lakers' offense throughout the contest. He and Pau really appear to be getting on the right page, as the Lakers rammed the 2-4-5 sequence -- pick-and-roll between Kobe and Pau, in which Kobe slips the pocket pass to Pau, who then throws a lob to Dwight after he spins off a defender that has to figure out whether to check Pau in the high post or Dwight on the block -- down the Warriors' throats and they had no recourse to deal with it. As we've noted several times, Dwight is far more effective in the post when Pau is setting him up, except we now have a framework in which Pau can perform well as well as Dwight. This noted, we perhaps could go without Dwight initiating from the high post, as he threw an amusingly bad lob to Pau in an odd reversal of their usual sequence.
- Steve Blake -- Poor Blake has had to deal with a lot these last few games, as yet another point guard decided to light him up to the tune of 47 points. Granted, most of these were hardly Blake's fault, as the Lakers needed to hedge hard and trap Curry off the pick-and-roll in order to have any chance, so it would be unreasonable to expect more out of Blake in these circumstances. He did respond nicely on the offensive end, however, as he put up a genuinely solid 14/3/5 line with no turnovers and four made threes. Given his recent struggles, especially in the turnover department, it was heartening to see him recover in a good way at a critical time.
- Metta World Peace -- Metta is clearly still hobbled and his conditioning is questionable, as he asked out of the game at a certain point in order to catch his breath, but he seems to be returning somewhat to form. Clearly, asking him to guard Curry was beyond his abilities, as he can't chase him over screens and he doesn't have the foot speed to make his lightning fast hands an actual weapon against ballhandlers. Still, on a night on which the Laker defense as a whole was mostly faltering, he did good work, especially on the defensive glass when most of the team was awful in that department. His offense also is making a minor comeback, as he hit a three and managed to free himself for a layup using his strength on the interior. With the Lakers wing depth understandably compromised, MWP's play will be critical down whatever remains of this season.
- Honorable mention to Earl Clark, who continues his disappearing act on the court but otherwise had an acceptable night. Checking wings who run off screens is definitely not his strength and an elite shooter in Klay Thompson made this all the more difficult. Going 26 minutes without getting one defensive board, however, is kind of unacceptable, especially in a game in which the Warriors survived on the offensive boards. The whole point of the big Clark/Pau/Dwight frontcourt is not only to flood the lane with size but to control the glass on both ends. In any case, Clark did do well as a spot-up shooter, not a natural role for him from behind the arc, but they were important contributions nonetheless and a significant difference from the zero he's provided in that department lately.
- Jodie Meeks -- Really, this wasn't that bad of a game for Meeks considering his recent fall, but that's faint praise altogether, especially when he's going to be the guy called upon to start in Kobe's absence. It's true that there's not much he can do as a spot-up shooter considering his role, but only three shots in 22 minutes leads one to question what exactly he's doing on the court. He also seems determined to remind us of his shortcomings, as his only shot that wasn't a three was a badly executed fadeaway off the dribble. Otherwise, he got wrecked on defense trying to traverse screens, although he did get a big defensive rebound down the stretch. Needless to say, he's going to have to improve in a big way to even remotely fill the role that he'll be placed into.
- Antawn Jamison -- It's clear at this point that Jamison's wrist is really affecting his game, as none of his attempts in the paint look fluid, even if it was difficult to tell in the first place given how bizarre his game is in general down there. This was made all the more worse by Golden State being one of the few teams this year who deliberately pick on him for his defensive failings, as David Lee and Carl Landry continuously punished the Lakers for having him on the court by bringing him into the post. If he can't respond in kind on offense, there's not a lot he can bring to the team and it's understandable why he'd lose a lot of his minutes to MWP and Clark in the process, a development that might hold for the rest of the season if this holds true.