Kobe Bryant Gets Lakers to .500, but Will It Last?

Grant HughesFeatured Columnist IVMarch 18, 2017

Thanks in part to a ferocious throwback dunk by Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Atlanta Hawks on March 3 and have made it all the way back to .500 for the first time since Dec. 28.

The question is: Will this win be the moment that ignites the Lakers' sputtering season, or will they flame out down the stretch?

Before we try to find an answer, it's definitely worth looking at Bryant's slam one more time. I mean, how often do you get to see true evidence that time travel is real? Clearly, the dunk came from sometime in the late 1990s.

Still, Bryant's potentially pivotal play will amount to nothing if the Lakers can't find a way to ride their momentum to a playoff berth. To do that, they'll have to navigate a legitimately difficult schedule in which 11 of their final 22 games will involve opponents that are currently playoff-bound.

Here's what the stretch run looks like:

Date Opponent Record
March 5 @ Oklahoma City Thunder 43-16
March 6 @ New Orleans Hornets 21-39
March 8 vs. Toronto Raptors 23-37
March 10 vs. Chicago Bulls 34-26
March 12 @ Orlando Magic 16-44
March 13 @ Atlanta Hawks 33-25
March 15 @ Indiana Pacers 38-22
March 17 vs. Sacramento Kings 21-40
March 18 @ Phoenix Suns 21-39
March 22 vs. Washington Wizards 19-39
March 25 @ Golden State Warriors 33-27
March 27 @ Minnesota Timberwolves 20-36
March 28 @ Milwaukee Bucks 29-28
March 30 @ Sacramento Kings 21-40
April 2 vs. Dallas Mavericks 26-33
April 5 vs. Memphis Grizzlies 39-19
April 7 @ Los Angeles Clippers 43-19
April 9 vs. New Orleans Hornets 21-39
April 10 @ Portland Trail Blazers 27-31
April 12 vs. Golden State Warriors 33-27
April 14 vs. San Antonio Spurs 47-14
April 17 vs. Houston Rockets 33-28

If you take the easy mathematical route and figure that the .500 Lakers can be expected to win about as often as they lose down the stretch, the chances that they can make up the two-and-a-half-game deficit on the Houston Rockets for the No. 8 seed seems remote. The Rockets are playing well themselves, so the Lakers will need a pretty significant run to catch them.

Of course, looking at the the Lakers' recent performance more closely, it's clear that they're really quite a bit better than a .500 team. Over its past 10 contests, L.A. has been victorious seven times. Even factoring that in, though, ESPN's Playoff Odds Calculator figures that the Lakers still have just a 47.3 percent chance to make the postseason.

Maybe the computers ESPN uses to generate its odds are unaware that Bryant told reporters in no uncertain terms that his team would be playing ball beyond game No. 82 this year. Or perhaps there's not an input for that piece of data.

Per Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated, Bryant said: "It's not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone—Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver...whoever. I have zero nervousness about that."

Fearlessness and defiance are two of the 17-year veteran's most noteworthy traits, and Bryant will need to impart both of them to the rest of his teammates if they're to have any hope of turning a big win into a run that propels them to postseason glory.

Based on the way Bryant has been playing lately and the turn-back-time highlights he's been generating, it's clear that the Lakers star is prepared to lead by example.

Ultimately, though, all of the sensational dunks and powerful rhetoric may not be enough to overcome what appear to be some pretty long odds. With a fairly tough schedule ahead and little evidence that the teams above them in the standings are going to slip up to any significant degree, it seems about right to put L.A.'s playoff chances somewhere in the neighborhood of a coin flip.

For a Lakers team that has now won exactly as often as it has lost, that sort of 50-50 proposition should feel oddly familiar.