After splitting a pair of games this week, the Lakers are just 2.5 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the Pacific Division. This is great news considering the Lakers have been playing without Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
That’s about to change, though, as Kobe announced that he will be in the starting lineup Sunday night when the Lakers play host to the Raptors.
What a fitting opponent to return against, too. The Mamba has shredded the Raptors throughout his career. In 29 career games against Toronto, Bryant is averaging 28.3 points per game (second-most against any team).
He’s also provided impressive heroics against the team from up north. We all know about the 81 point explosion back in 2006. However, Kobe has also hit a trio of game winners (2010, 2012, and 2013) against the Raptors.
There are many questions surrounding Kobe’s return. How long will Mike D’Antoni play him early on? How effective will he be? How healthy is he? All of these questions will be answered this week. That said, even if Kobe is 80 percent of what he once was, he’s going to be a major boost to the Lakers.
The Lakers dynamic will surely change with Bryant in the lineup. In last night’s win over Sacramento, six different players scored double figures. With Kobe in the lineup, we may not see that again. Hopefully, it’s not going to be the Kobe show where he shoots 30 times per game.
From what we’ve seen early on, the Lakers have a lot of players who can produce. Xavier Henry, Jordan Hill, Jordan Farmar (when he’s healthy), Pau Gasol, Shawne Williams, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Steve Blake, and Jodie Meeks have all had shining moments during this season.
In fact, the Lakers have had nine different leading scorers in their 19 games this season. No Laker to this point has cracked the 30 point mark this season. Such a notion would be unheard of had Kobe been healthy.
Kobe could easily become the leading scorer every night for the Lakers, but there’s no doubt that he’s excited about the fact about having great help on his team. Kobe is always most effective when he’s a facilitator. When he takes a lot of shots, it’s usually a sign that no one is helping him and he has to take over the game on his own. This year’s squad has a plethora of players that can make shots. Kobe doesn’t have to take over games anymore.
The Kobe-less Lakers were pretty much asked to just stay afloat at .500 until their star returned. Going into Sunday, they’re one game above .500 and they’ve won six of their last eight games. In fact, they’re a game better than they were last year at this point and that was with Dwight and Kobe.
They showed great heart against the West’s best Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night, coming back down from two double-digit deficits only to run out of gas late in the fourth quarter of that game.
Then, last night the Lakers were down by as many as 10 points in the 3rd quarter. It didn’t matter. They roared back to outscore the Kings 25-13 on the road to win by six points thanks to a three-point barrage by Jodie Meeks.
Last year’s Lakers were entitled and flaky for many. This year’s team has shown resilience, heart, and has dealt with adversity in ways no one imagined.
Take Robert Sacre for instance. He was drafted 60th overall in 2012. People can badmouth the Lakers draft day decisions all they want, but Sacre has been a great pick. He has battled hard and he was rewarded with his first start of the season on Friday night. He had three starts last year, but that was because the team was riddled with injuries. He earned last night’s start.
In limited action, Sacre is averaging over a block per game and is shooting over 54 percent from the field. This week, in two games he averaged 11.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and shot 66.7 percent. Plus, for the season, when Sacre has been on the floor the Lakers’ efficiency marks have been outstanding. They have boasted an offensive efficiency of 121.2 and a defensive efficiency 95.4 during his minutes. This is a small sample, but it certainly contributed to why he has seen an uptick in minutes lately.
His hard work, though, is a microcosm of the entire Lakers team. Most of these guys are fighting for contracts. Many of them play for the league minimum and are working feverishly to get a fat paycheck over the summer. It’s moral hazard at its best.
And now Kobe makes his long awaited return. The Lakers play four games this week. After their tilt at home with the Raptors on Sunday, they’ll play host to the Suns on Tuesday before heading out to Oklahoma City and Charlotte to finish off the week.