Everything for the Lakers seems to be hanging by a thread.
Kobe Bryant’s tired from all the minutes he’s played. Pau Gasol’s sore from the plantar fascia in his right foot. Antawn Jamison still feels his sprained right wrist throbbing. Who knows when Steve Nash will return to the lineup after nursing both a right hamstring and right hip injury in the past week.
But even with everything ailing the Lakers, there proved to be one trusty element that allowed them to run on fumes en route to a 86-84 victory Friday over the Memphis Grizzlies
Bryant and Gasol ran the show the same fashion that secured them two consecutive championships, combining for 43 of the team’s 86 points.
“It’s unstoppable,” Bryant said. “You can’t guard it. You just hope we miss. There’s no reasonable way you can defend that.”
The Grizzlies sure couldn’t.
Gasol’s brother, Marc, may have delivered an elbow that drew a first-quarter technical and jokes from reporters that the mild-mannered Pau would somehow seek retribution. Pau conceded Memphis’ bruising frontline in Marc and Zach Randolph really tested his pain threshold in his right foot. But nothing could stop Gasol anytime he and Bryant ran pick-and-roll sets for each other.
Anytime Gasol set a screen at the top of the key, three scenarios happened. Gasol found an open look at the elbow. Bryant found enough space for an easy jumper. The action caused Memphis to shift away from another player, such as Dwight Howard, Jodie Meeks or Steve Blake. It particularly came in handy when Bryant missed his last three shots of the game mostly because of fatigue. But there was Gasol driving to the lane for a left-handed layup with 1:36 remaining to give the Lakers a 85-84 lead.
“It’s important,” Gasol said. “We’re both knowledgable players. We both have high basketball IQs. It’s not just about making plays, but about setting up the offense that way, seeing how the defense reacts, then setting somebody else up for a good shot. I think that’s important. That’s what we can do as players and I like to see it happen the way it’s been happening lately.”
The Lakers will sure need it.
They remain unsure when Nash will come back from injury. Even if Metta World Peace has participated in running drills a mere week after having surgery on his left knee, he’s still expected to miss at least five more weeks if the Lakers are even in the playoffs at that point. As much as Dwight Howard has shown a stronger commitment on defense, his off-ball movement on offense remains fairly stagnant.
So why not rely on something that remains so second-nature toward Bryant and Gasol?
“We’ve played with each other the longest for sure,” Gasol said. “That was always a constant in the past. It seemed to work pretty well and I think it’s just smart if we continue to do that. Not for ourselves, but for the rest of the guys.”
That only begs the question: why didn’t the Lakers lean on this earlier?
“It’s been a lot of figuring out and there’s been coaching changes and there’s been injuries and all that crap,” Bryant said. “But it’s better late than never. Everyone was panicking a little bit about the spot where we are, but the reality is we played well the last stretch of games going into the playoffs and then we feel really confident. We’ll be ready to roll.”
The job still isn’t finished, though. The Lakers (40-36) still only have a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz (40-37) for the eighth playoff spot with six games remaining. To remain in the hunt and go beyond just having a first-round flameout, the Lakers have a trusty formula to follow.
Let Bryant and Gasol facilitate the offense.
“We’re using him the right way. We’re using his strengths in terms of his ability to facilitate and ability to shoot the ball,” Bryant said. “Pau doesn’t want to score the ball really. He likes getting other guys involved. We’re putting him at the elbow. We’re slipping him out on screens. When he has a shot, he’s taking it. When he isn’t, he’s getting other guys involved. It’s working very well for us.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org