And then, things got tough for the twice-defending NBA champions.
Just when the Lakers thought it was safe to go back into Staples Center with their two-game winning streak, Kobe Bryant was swiped across the right elbow, put a towel over his head in pain on the bench, went to the dressing room and came back for the second half with a sleeve on his right arm which he carried low, playing predominantly left-handed.
Then he scored 18 of his 24 points in the third quarter, drilling eight of 11 shots including two three-pointers, as the Lakers beat the Clippers, 108-95.
Now it’s a three-game winning streak, once a matter of course in Lakerdom, but not lately.
Not that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson ever doubted Bryant would be back.
“Not after I asked him if he was OK,” Jackson said.
“He said, ‘I’ll be there.’”
In other words, he’s Kobe Bryant. He does these things.
How many more miracles the Lakers will need, or Bryant has in him, remains to be seen. But compared to what’s coming, this was recess.
Starting with Sunday’s game against the Thunder, the Lakers will play in Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Atlanta, Miami and Dallas within 15 days.
Not that the Lakers aren’t ready, but Jackson, asked before the game how they’re doing, said, in effect, it beats him.
“You know, it’s just a one-game-at-a-time thing with this team,” he said.
“We’d love to get momentum and have a seven-game winning streak, a 10-game winning streak, but we are just not that consistent yet, where we can say, ‘We really have momentum going.’”
Bemused as usual, Jackson evinced little interest in the Clippers, who mauled his team once and would have been 2-0 against the Lakers if not for Derek Fisher’s last-second layup.
Nevertheless, Jackson dispensed with questions about the cross-town rivals as if smashing lobs in badminton.
Q: What have you learned about the Clippers that might be applicable tonight?
PJ, grinning: “I don’t know what to do with that question. Go on to the next one.”
Q: Anything that concerns you about the Clippers?
Q: Why not?
PJ: “I’m not concerned, that’s all. That’s just not where I’m at.”
It’s true, if you’re coaching the Lakers and the Clippers give you trouble, you’ve really got problems.
Actually, Jackson is coaching the Lakers, the Clippers have given him trouble and he really does have problems.
The Clippers, of course, remain Troubles R Us.
They began the night with a 21-37 record, nine losses in 11 games, missing two bodies with newly acquired Mo Williams and Jamario Moon yet to pass physicals.
“We’re just trying to keep it together right now,” Coach Vinny Del Negro said before the game.
“The biggest thing right now is to get the guys to play hard, to play with confidence, to play together. I know it all sounds easy but it’s a challenge. . . .
“I’m excited about the guys we added but I’m more excited about, let’s see how it all comes together. It’s going to be nice.”
Of course, to date it has come together only once every decade or two.
For the Clippers, it’s wait till next year.
For the Lakers, this is a new experience, campaigning after the All-Star game.
In recent seasons, they’ve had the West locked up by now and coasted in, letting an East team or two go by them for best record.
This season, the Spurs have locked up the West and the Lakers will have all they can do to catch Dallas, which leads them by 1½ games and has won 14 of 15.
Then, there’s local disappointment, at least by callers to talk shows, at the Lakers’ inability to get Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams or Dwight Howard at the trade deadline.
Lakers players, of course, are more realistic, although some of them may have been hoping to land Melo, too.
Given all that, it was an inspirational week for the Lakers, who will need more where that came from.