When Kobe Bryant was injured in a 96-92 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, conventional wisdom would say that the Lakers playoff hopes went down with him.
But nothing’s been conventional about this Lakers team. After stumbling out to a pathetic start that cost Mike Brown his coaching job and sunk the Lakers to the bottom of the Western Conference, the team has bounced back nicely. The Lakers won 17 of their 22 games going into Wednesday’s game, and now occupies the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
Sure, most of that surge was on the play of Kobe Bryant — along with his guarantee that the team would be in the playoffs — but now with Kobe Bryant injured, it offers a chance for some others to step up.
Namely Dwight Howard.
The mercurial center had been a problem spot for the Lakers all year, from arguments with Steve Nash to behind-the-scenes unhappiness that led to trade rumors. But that seems to be behind him, and Howard has been more comfortable with his teammates and on the court.
Lakers fans got to see a taste of the old Dwight Howard is his return to Orlando this week. Though Howard suffered torrents of boos, he endured the Magic’s hack-a-Dwight strategy to score 39 points and lead his team to a victory. He played angry and full of motivation, looking more like the player that close to single-handedly led the Magic to the finals in 2009 rather than the one the Lakers were thinking of ditching after less than a full season.
With Kobe Bryant injured, Dwight will have a chance to one again be the centerpiece of his team, and he looks more than ready for the job. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has said that Howard is the future of the team, so they might as well get that started now.
Add in the fact that the team is growing more comfortable in new coach Mike D’Antoni’s system by the day, and the Lakers could be headed for the playoffs with our without Kobe.
It’s not known how long Kobe Bryant’s injury will keep him out, but the All-Star guard said it’s the worst sprain he’s suffered since the 2000 season. It also got Bryant heated about what he saw as a dirty play from Dahntay Jones.
“First and foremost, the officials really need to protect shooters,” Bryant said of the contact with Jones. “You just can’t go into shooters. That’s a dangerous play.”
If the Lakers can channel some of that anger, the team can overcome the fact that Kobe Bryant is injured and set itself up for another nice playoff run.