This night was just like every other: Dwight Howard did not play in Brooklyn. The Lakers All-Star, star-crossed center did not get to play against the team he reportedly had wanted so dearly to play for. His shoulder still was hurting. His team, though, seemed just fine.
In fact, the occasion felt like a homecoming for Kobe Bryant, even though neither he nor his Lakers had been there before. Howard barely was an afterthought for the many people who were cheering for Bryant, loudly chanting "M--V--P!" at various points during the Lakers' 92-83 victory. "From my perspective, it was pretty damn cool," Bryant said of the reactions that his points -- many of them electrifying -- drew at Barclays Center. "I enjoyed it immensely."
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Bryant redeemed an odd day for the Lakers in a bizarre season, and he might be on the way to redeeming the season itself. The Lakers have won six of seven, despite the fact Howard still is out with a shoulder that he does not want to rush the way he rushed a back injury last year; despite the fact Metta World Peace was suspended for grabbing and jabbing an opponent Sunday; despite the fact Bryant himself has a sprained right elbow.
The Lakers were arguably the NBA's biggest flop in the first two months, and they had yet another setback Tuesday night when Pau Gasol sustained a foot injury late in the fourth quarter. "I'm very, very concerned," Bryant said. "It feels good to pull out a win like this, but this is when reality sets in."
Maybe not quite yet. Most of Tuesday was unreal, starting with coach Mike D'Antoni saying at the morning shootaround in Manhattan that Howard was doubtful, then Howard removed all doubt, saying he wasn't ready. Upheavals come by the handful for the Lakers, including the firing of Mike Brown as coach and the hiring of D'Antoni rather than Phil Jackson. D'Antoni has installed a new system in which Bryant does more passing and less shooting. So far, so good.
Bryant is by nature an optimist. "Absolutely," he said. "I like figuring things out, problem-solving. I feel good about it. It's a nice challenge."
So it was no surprise that, sprained elbow and all, he went right to the hoop with the score tied at 80 and went past and over Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries for a Barclays-rattling dunk with 2:45 left. "That," said Steve Nash, who had 17 points and eight assists, "was a big basket. That was a thrill, the way he got through and got to the rim. Obviously, it was a spectacular finish. He's brilliant."
Bryant saw the play this way: "I was shocked the lane was so open. Everybody has been drinking the `Kobe-pass' Kool-Aid and they parted, like the Red Sea. I felt like Moses."
He dunked like Moses Malone, even though he felt it in his elbow. "You can't grab your arm there," he said. "It reduces the swag of the moment."
Nothing reduced the showtime feel that the Lakers still have. On this night, Bryant looked like he had the key to the place that could have been Howard's home.