Bryant saw the bigger picture. He had all the pieces–all the missing links he so desperately sought out during the previous summer, and it was just a matter of adding a few distinct qualities to a team built for a dynasty.
Defense, focus and mental toughness.
All pivotal in each of the Lakers’ consecutive championship runs, all instrumental in the Lakers maintaining their motivation this season and all put on display in their 99-83 road victory over San Antonio Spurs—a team that hasn’t lost a home game since November 2010.
The Lakers’ effort on the defensive end is something that Bryant has been harping on all season long. Actually no, scratch that. He’s been emphasizing it for the past two seasons. Most recently, over the last seven games, the Lakers have been on a defensive tear, their latest effort against the Spurs—one of the best offenses in the league—was almost poetic.
The Spurs shot a measly 27.3 percent over the first 12 minutes. The next 36 weren’t much more productive for the Spurs as the Lakers completely removed any flow and ball movement from their offense. They effectively limited the contributions from two of their three key guys—Manu Ginobli and Tim Duncan, who both ended the night with a combined four makes in 17 tries.
Perhaps the biggest contribution on defense came from the guy that Bryant described during that same 2008 press conference as the player who solved the Lakers’ need for “rebounding and shot blocking in the middle.” Andrew Bynum ended the night with 17 rebounds and three blocks.
“This team is going to win regardless if I get 15 points or if I get four points. That’s the kind of team we are,” Bynum said after the game. “But this team won’t win if we don’t have defensive toughness on the inside. I just think that’s the biggest thing I can bring.”
At last Bynum understands his role on the team.
Bryant can preach defense, Phil Jackson and his coaching staff could teach it, but the one inherent defensive advantage that Bynum holds above the rest is his length. That’s something the Spurs and many other teams simply can’t match.