On Friday night the puzzle continued at home, before the usual glittery array of Hollywood types. Bryant returned to the role of shooter and scored 40 points, and Howard had 19 and 16 rebounds. But Nash struggled again and the Lakers needed four Bryant free throws in the last 13 seconds to beat the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that had lost six in a row coming in.
“We're getting there,” Howard said. “You could see the effort and emotion that we have on the court.”
Unfortunately for the Lakers, getting there is going to be difficult. They're 27-29 on the season, ninth in the Western Conference and 3 1 / 2 games out of the last playoff spot. They've got 26 games left, and the teams immediately in front of them have shown no sign of imminent collapse.
The Lakers, meanwhile, aren't even the best team in their building. The long woeful Clippers own that title, and own the Lakers after blowing them out by 24 points earlier this month.
For the Lakers to make good on Bryant's guarantee, they need to win like this team was expected to win when the season began. So far they haven't shown they're capable of doing that on a sustained basis, even if they have won seven of their last 10.
Still, Bryant is doing his best to find a way to get it done. He's altered his game, cajoled his teammates, and tried every psychological ruse he knows to get the Lakers moving toward the ring that would put his name in the conversation with Michael Jordan when the debate turns to the greatest NBA player ever.
The guarantee may be the last trick left in his bag.
“You love it when your best player has that confidence and that challenge,” Nash said. “He's put it out there for us to go get now.”
That wouldn't have been an issue before. In 16 seasons with the Lakers, Bryant has missed the playoffs only once, in 2005 when Phil Jackson was between stints with the team.
To do it again with a team that seemed so loaded in talent when the season began is almost incomprehensible.
Bryant understands that better than most. Surely, too, he understands what missing the playoffs this season might do to his legacy.