Kobe Bryant sat on the bench resting his weary legs in a move Lakers head coach Byron Scott learned from Spurs chief Gregg Popovich. (Popovich regularly rests his best players throughout the season, disappointing fans but helping his team.) The Lakers have struggled this season and they looked–especially without Kobe–to be an easy mark for the surging Golden State Warriors. But a funny thing happened. The Lakers responded with energy and freedom and they won–115-105. At one point the Lakers had a 24-point lead.
Immediately the rumors started that perhaps the Lakers were better off without their superstar. Jeremy Lin, for one, played like a newly liberated man, even hitting a clutch 3 near the end that stopped a last ditch comeback effort by the Warriors. (And this just days after Kobe missed a game-ender and Lin casually mentioned that he likes to take big shots too.) Nick Young, who led the Lakers in scoring last year during Kobe’s rehab, said the team played “without handcuffs” against the Warriors. It will be interesting to see how Bryant reacts. If he was the handcuffs Young referred to, he’s smart enough to take them off–Bryant wants the team to win. And Bryant may have learned something watching the play of his looser teammates. He’ll adapt his game according to what he witnessed. There is no way the Lakers are better off without Kobe Bryant. But by showing what they could do without him, the Lakers may have just made Bryant’s return even more potent.