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Kobe or Not Kobe?

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

March 14, 2013, 12:05 AM

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Ko-be, or not Ko-be?

So, it appears Kobe Bryant won't play against the Pacers on Friday after spraining his ankle with three seconds remaining in Atlanta on Wednesday.

Is that a good thing or not?

It's good for the Pacers' chance of winning, certainly. Bryant, at 34 years old and a veteran of 17 NBA seasons, remains one of the game's greatest forces. He ranks third in the league in scoring, ranks first among clutch performers, and still lures fans into arenas as well as anyone not named LeBron. Friday's game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is a sellout, and we can safely assume Bryant is both reason 1 and 1a. The dream scenario for most fans would have been a Pacers' victory despite Kobe going for 40.

It would be healthy for the Pacers, though, to take on the challenge of a Bryant-led L. A. team, which had won 9-of-11 games and claimed the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference before losing to the Hawks. They have proved their superiority over teams that will be watching the playoffs on television, such as in Wednesday's 107-91 victory over Minnesota, but they have work to do against the sort of elite teams they would face if they advance in the postseason.

Working backward on their schedule, they just beat Minnesota, a non-playoff team; lost badly in Miami, a championship contender; beat Orlando, a non-playoff team; lost at home to Boston, a possible first-round playoff matchup; beat Chicago, a playoff team; beat Toronto, a non-playoff team; lost to the Clippers, another title contender.

Chicago was the only exception to the obvious pattern. Every win the Pacers can get against the league's best boosts their confidence and strengthens their grip on the second seed in the East, which stood at just a half-game after Wednesday's victory over the Timberwolves and before New York's game in Denver. A win Friday would be more meaningful if Bryant were part of it, but would count the same in the standings.

On the other hand, the Pacers could be forgiven for thinking, “To hell with Kobe playing, we need the win.” They do, certainly, and will have other opportunities to play elite teams. Now that it seems safe to say Roy Hibbert has regained last season's All-Star form (he had 27 points and 12 rebounds against a do-nut Minnesota team) there's one overriding mission for the rest of the season.

“Just consistency,” Paul George said. “We just have to be consistent. No matter who the opponent is, we know there's nights we're not going to shoot the ball well, but we've got to stay consistent defensively. We have to come out and guard teams, no matter who we're playing. We have to be much more aggressive defensively.”

That foundation has cracked a bit in recent weeks. The Pacers have led the NBA in points allowed and opponents' field goal percentage most of the season, but have slipped to No. 2 in points allowed, behind Memphis. Miami scored 105 points, no major tragedy for that caliber of team that was having a shot shooting night. More damning was allowing Minnesota, a losing team playing without four of its five leading scorers, 54 points in the first half on Wednesday. The Timberwolves, however, scored just 37 points on 35 percent shooting in the second half.

Beating the Lakers, especially with Bryant, might help remove some of the bad taste left over from the loss in Miami, but the Pacers claim to have already rid themselves of that. They put in a long day on Tuesday, watching video and practicing, and coach Frank Vogel came away feeling they had addressed the primary issues.

While David West had criticized the team's emotional approach to the game, Vogel thought some of Miami's stretegic adjustments – such as having LeBron James defend Lance Stephenson and Dwyane Wade defend Paul George – caught his players off-guard and caused them to be hesitant. He has since focused on “technical adjustments we can definitely clean up.”

George Hill, meanwhile, downplayed the entire Miami experience.

“That was just one game,” he said. “It doesn't mean anything. We still have to show up in the playoffs. They just played better than us one day, and we played better than them the other two games (Pacer victories at Bankers Life).

“We don't have to prove anything.”

George, the Paul variety, agreed.

“We could have taken that loss to any team,” he said. “It's one loss. It's no pressure on us.”

OK. But the argument could be advanced more easily if they beat some of the elite teams that remain on the schedule. The Lakers would be one of them – with Bryant. The Pacers, however, are in no position to refuse favors.

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