Kobe Bryant’s Achilles Injury Forces Lakers to Finally Play With Toughness

Pau Gasol, Matt BonnerDwight Howard insisted the Lakers will “fight to the end,” which was an interesting word choice since “fight” is exactly what the Lakers — aside from Kobe Bryant — have lacked for much of this season.

With Bryant sidelined with an Achilles tear, the rest of the Lakers finally displayed some of their absent leader’s toughness on Sunday. While shooting an unsightly 37 percent from the floor and holding the Spurs to the same rate of (in)accuracy, the Lakers gutted out a 91-86 win to keep their postseason hopes intact. The fact that the Spurs were similarly incomplete, playing without Manu Ginobili and leaving team MVP Tony Parker on the bench for most of the fourth quarter, was beside the point. At long last, the Lakers not named Kobe came to play.

Howard scored 26 points, hauled in 17 rebounds and blocked three shots in the type of performance the Lakers anticipated him delivering for more than the few dozen games in which he has exhibited such dominance this season. Antawn Jamison drilled three 3-pointers, playing the role of Rashard Lewis in a Frankenstein version of the offense Stan Van Gundy ran with so much success around Howard in Orlando. Pau Gasol had a rough time, scoring seven points on 3-for-17 shooting, but at least he was engaged in the proceedings. Allowing for the fact that he missed almost two months with a torn tendon is his foot, Gasol had not taken that many shots since Feb. 3.

So, hey, sure. Play with “fight” now, Lakers, now that you are within one win or a Utah loss of clinching the playoff spot Bryant assured you would get. Show some resolve now that Bryant, who averaged more than 45 minutes per game in April, is shelved for up to 10 months. Decide to take advantage of Howard’s talents by feeding the big man in the post, where Howard has been playing like a certifiable tank since at least mid-March. Great timing, fellas.

Bryant seems impressed with the Lakers’ effort, if his active tweeting from a hospital bed is any indication, but do not let the Lakers’ fight to the finish overshadow the disappointment this season has been as a whole. All a playoff spot means for the Lakers is a quick ouster at the hands of the Thunder, who will not be nearly as half-interested as the Spurs were on Sunday. That is a far cry from the ebullient dominance the Lakers told everyone they would display after acquiring Howard and Steve Nash in the offseason.

It did not have to be this way. Injuries? Yes, the Lakers have had injuries. Yet they also have losses to Phoenix, Washington and several other also-ran teams when they had multiple All-Stars in the lineup. They can pretend to be a scrappy bunch in the final 2 1/2 games of the season, but everyone else should know better. The “fight” has arrived for the Lakers just in time to remind us how greatly it has been missing all season.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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