INDIANAPOLIS -- Remember Coach Kobe from late last season?
Kobe Bryant and his much-ballyhooed sprained left ankle made an early exit from the game Friday night, but Bryant did offer consistent positive energy and advice on the bench in the final three quarters while teammates Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison and Metta World Peace expanded their roles wonderfully in the Lakers' 99-93 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
The Lakers got possibly their best victory of the season against the 40-25 Pacers even though Dwight Howard got into early foul trouble again and shot just 7 for 17 from the field with four turnovers. Howard did make his final two shots after Bryant yelled to him from the bench: "Take your time!"
Bryant did a lot of coaching for Mike Brown last April while nursing a shin injury. On Friday night, Bryant even diagrammed for Howard and World Peace with the clipboard, contributing to a palpable team spirit.
Said World Peace, who was a monster on defense against both David West (4 of 13 from the floor) and Paul George (6 of 20): "Definitely, it was our best win of the season."
Howard was encouraged enough to say off-handedly to some Indianapolis cameramen was he was leaving the locker room: "See y'all in the Finals."
Bryant missed all four of his shots and was unable to make any sudden movements. He coasted through the first quarter, which ended with the Lakers trailing the Eastern Conference's No. 2 team, 19-16, and did not return.
The Lakers stayed in the game with balanced scoring that included 18 points from Blake and 17 from Jamison off the bench against an Indiana team ranked No. 1 in the NBA in field-goal defense. Blake also had seven assists and four steals, one coming with 1:40 left and preceding Howard's 3-point play for a 90-87 Lakers lead.
"Steve Blake was just unbelievable," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said.
BRYANT HELPS OUT
Bryant tried, but couldn't argue with reality.
After a scoreless first quarter, Bryant didn't come back into the Lakers' game in Indiana on Friday night because of his sprained left ankle.
Bryant missed all four of his shots and has lost his man, Lance Stephenson, time after time at the other end early in the game as he struggled to move on defense. During the second quarter while on the bench, Bryant was asked something by assistant coach Chuck Person, and Bryant responded: "I can't go."
"I just couldn't move," Bryant said afterward. "It's really as simple as that. It just continued to swell and continue to get tight, and more pain, and I couldn't put any pressure on it."
Bryant still helped from the bench, coaching Dwight Howard on post play and all the Lakers on pick-and-roll defense, among other topics. Bryant also argued successfully with the referees that the Bankers Life Fieldhouse clock operator started the time early on the Lakers' final possession of the first half.
The Lakers' next game is Sunday night at home against Sacramento, and Bryant didn't offer a guess yet whether he would play -- half-joking that he would just continue to coach.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said about Bryant next game: "He'll have the final say if the trainers clear him."
Bryant managed to multi-task in the second half Friday night, bringing an electric stimulation unit out to help his ankle while also munching on almonds and advising teammates.
Bryant's effort to play was appreciated by his teammates also. Said Howard, who cheered when Bryant was introduced with the Lakers' starters: "He tried."
About Bryant's coaching, Steve Nash said: "He was engaged. He wanted us to win. He had a lot of energy."
Gasol back Monday?
Pau Gasol was in good spirits after another comfortable workout Friday as his recovery from a torn plantar fascia in his right foot continued. D'Antoni pegged Monday in Phoenix as the likely return for Gasol.
Gasol was noncommital about when he would play again, but D'Antoni said Gasol would be back in his familiar roles starting and finishing games for the Lakers sooner or later.
"He's going to be a starter at some point, and he's going to be a big part of what we do," said D'Antoni, who might ease Gasol back into prominence depending on his conditioning.
D'Antoni said Tuesday that Gasol brings enough other qualities that he could finish games even though the Lakers have had success spreading the floor with perimeter shooters to go with Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard pick-and-roll formations late in games. D'Antoni said it would be harder to use that alignment with Gasol, who isn't much of a 3-point shooter, but the "general plan" is for Gasol to finish games also.
Gasol has made clear he prefers starting. D'Antoni has been using Earl Clark as the starting power forward for added athleticism and mobility, but Clark has been increasingly inconsistent and is ceding key minutes to Antawn Jamison.
D'Antoni said it's possible Gasol could return Sunday night vs. Sacramento, but the Kings are just 6-28 on the road. Gasol is expected to work out again Sunday, and unless he decides he really feels ready to play, he'll play Monday in Phoenix, where the Suns are 15-17 this season.
The Lakers then have three days off for Gasol to recover before playing Washington on March 22. Gasol tore the plantar fascia in the Lakers' victory in Brooklyn on Feb. 5.
In the Lakers' first road game of the season, Nash took a hit to his left leg from the opposing point guard, had to leave, saw the Lakers lose and sat out seven weeks because of a broken leg.
Things are looking better for the Lakers now.
Nash took a hit to his right leg Friday night from the opposing point guard, stayed in the game, helped the Lakers win and was optimistic that it was only a bruise to his calf.
"I got kneed in the third quarter, and it kind of balled up and swelled up on me," Nash said. "Let's hope on the plane ride home it can stay under control; it kind of popped out a little bit."
Nash got hurt fouling Indiana's George Hill and got treatment from physical therapist Judy Seto on the bench during breaks in the game. He still delivered in the fourth quarter, scoring six points with four assists and no turnovers in eight minutes.
"It's not the end of the world," Nash said. "I'll take that over something worse."
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