NEW YORK -- There is no better closer in basketball than Kobe Bryant, an irrefutable fact he proved once again Tuesday night. Tie game, under three minutes to play, the Lakers without Dwight Howard (shoulder), Pau Gasol (foot) and Metta World Peace (suspension). Everyone in the sold-out Barclays Center knew Bryant was about to take over, and no one in the building could do anything to stop it. A driving dunk between Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries gave the Lakers a two-point cushion and a running layup two possessions later gave them a three-point lead over the Nets that they would not give back in a 92-83 victory.
More than an hour after the final buzzer sounded, a weary Bryant approached a podium a winner. Though he hardly looked the part. The Lakers lost Gasol with a potentially significant foot injury Tuesday, and who knows when they will get him back. Officially, the team said Gasol has plantar fasciitis in his right foot and will have an MRI in Boston tomorrow. Gasol said he heard a pop in the foot as he went down, and judging by the uneasiness in his teammates voices it could be some time before they see him again.
"I'm very concerned about it," Bryant said. "Obviously no one knows the extent or the severity of the injury yet. But I'm very concerned, to say the least."
No one understands Gasol's value more than Bryant. It was Gasol who resuscitated the Lakers in 2008, giving Bryant the skilled inside presence he needed for two championship runs. For all the problems Gasol has battled this season, Bryant still believed he could turn it around. For all the criticism Bryant and others have levied in Gasol's direction, Bryant believed the player he remembered would reemerge.
"We can't afford to lose Pau for a long stretch," Bryant said.
With Gasol down the Lakers need Howard back, perhaps now more than ever. L.A. has been hot lately, winning six of its last seven. But they still trail Houston by 3 1/2 games for the final playoff spot and still have to leapfrog Portland to get there.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni thought he might have Howard back against Brooklyn. Howard told him Tuesday morning he couldn't play, yet D'Antoni informed reporters at the Lakers shootaround that he was doubtful, hoping that over the next few hours Howard would be more willing to play through the pain. No one will publicly question Howard's toughness, though Bryant suggested Howard needed to learn his body's limits.
"I think it's inexperience," Bryant said. "For me, when I was growing up in high school and in middle school, unfortunately, but fortunately, I dealt with injuries. Not injuries that were debilitating, but injuries that you had to play through and had to manage the pain. When you go through those things you learn your body, and you know what you can push through and you know what you can't push through. But Dwight has never been hurt."
And what of last season's back injury?
"That's something that [was] debilitating," Bryant said. "He couldn't play. When you have an injury that hurts but you can play through, that's something you have to balance out and manage."
This continues to be a soap opera of a season for Howard, like the last one, with everyone wanting him to root himself to the team. But Howard shouldn't have to declare his undying love for L.A., not after half a season, not when the future of the team appears so murky. Commit? Would you? Howard has a coach who doesn't emphasize him offensively and teammates he is still getting to know. To suggest Howard should tie himself to a wildly unpredictable situation is ludicrous, not when everyone else in his position would follow the same path.
The Lakers aren't trading Howard, not now, not ever. General manager Mitch Kupchak said as much this week, not that he needed to. Talk of Howard's future will dominate blogs, debate shows and talk radio for months, but it makes no sense for the Lakers to move Howard, not when they can pay him between $25 and $30 million more than anyone else, not when there are so few legitimate options for him this summer, not when the probability is that after another offseason Howard will return next fall looking like the MVP candidate of old.
But the Lakers need Howard to play, now, before the season slips away from them. As bad of a year as it has been, it's still salvageable. The Lakers would be a terrifying first-round opponent for any of the top four teams in conference. Bryant, Howard and Steve Nash are still a fearsome troika, and if Gasol bounces back there is no team in the west that anyone can definitively say they can't beat.
Bryant was asked if he planned on being more assertive, to which he responded "How much more assertive do you want me to be?" Indeed, at this point, there is really not much more Bryant can do. The Lakers can't win if it's The Kobe Show, and he knows it. He needs Nash to make plays, World Peace to make shots and Howard to control the paint. He needs help, particularly Howard's help, now more than ever.