Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were missing from the San Antonio Spurs' lineup Thursday, each resting a sprained ankle and unable to play against the Lakers.
But some aspects of the Spurs remained the same: Manu Ginobili flopped all over the floor, and the Spurs kicked the ball out to the perimeter and gave the Lakers fits for
most of a game that was curiously flat until the third quarter.
The Lakers are becoming very good themselves. They've won four straight games, gaining confidence as they prepare for what looms as a record-padding stretch leading up to Christmas.
Robert Horry managed to hurt his former Lakers teammates -- if the Staples Center floor is ever dismantled, someone should give Horry the wood planks from the spot about 24 feet from the basket, on the left side -- but the short-handed Spurs couldn't hold off the Lakers' energy in the fourth quarter.
"We were able to lock down and get some stops when we needed," forward Lamar Odom said. "And we shut down in the paint when we needed to. We rebounded well and that helped."
The Lakers ended the game short-handed, too. The emotion they seemed to lack early in the game materialized and bubbled over in the third quarter, when center Andrew Bynum was ejected with 4:32 left in the quarter.
Bynum had tangled with San Antonio's Fabricio Oberto and was arguing a foul call when he got a technical foul. When he continued to mouth off, a second tech quickly followed. Kobe Bryant had to restrain his young teammate from getting in the face of the officials.
While Bynum learns about the fine line between emotion and stupidity, the Lakers learned about their capabilities. The best may be still to come for the Lakers, whose 13-8 record isn't far off the 15-6 mark they had at the same point last season.
"Definitely this was a team win," Ronny Turiaf said. "We got down early and the second unit came in and gave the starters a little energy."
From Bryant's game-high 30 points to Bynum's increasingly confident play and a few key left-handed layups by Odom -- including one that energized the crowd and gave the Lakers a 95-86 lead with just under four minutes to play -- the Lakers had much to be happy about.
They also have much to look forward to.
Five of their next six games will be against teams that are below .500, the lone exception being the 12-10 Warriors tonight at Golden State.
They return home to face the Clippers on Sunday before leaving for a four-game trip against the Bulls, Cavaliers, 76ers and Knicks, whose combined record is 32-53.
Also in their favor: Kwame Brown, who has missed 12 games since spraining his knee and ankle, is nearly ready to return and is scheduled to accompany the team.
Then, too, there's the development of Trevor Ariza, who is beginning to get some serious playing time now that he has had a chance to practice with the team, learn the offense and ramp up his defensive efforts.
As the first player off the bench Thursday, Ariza played 17 minutes and had six points, three rebounds and two assists, sustaining a progression that has won approval from Coach Phil Jackson.
"How he's going to flesh out his role, I'm not sure," Jackson said before the game.
"But what we'd like to see him be able to do is be a real energy source for us coming off the bench, someone that can infuse our team and maybe be a starter."
"I'm not making him solely a bench player," Jackson said.
"I think that he's got the capabilities to infuse our team with the kind of energy that we need, bring a certain tenacity defensively, run the court really hard and do things that second group does really well, which is speed the game up."
The Lakers' second group, jolted when Maurice Evans and Brian Cook were traded to Orlando for Ariza last month, has regained its energy and is again a vital force. The bench contributed 37 points Thursday, with Turiaf, Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic sharing the lead with eight points each.
None might have been more important than Jordan Farmar's fall-back, nothing-but-net three-point shot with just under six minutes to play in the fourth quarter, which extended the Lakers' lead to 90-82.
Unless it was the dunk by Turiaf, off a no-look pass from Bryant that put the Lakers ahead, 97-86, with 4:25 to play.
The reserves' efforts allowed Jackson to stay with his plan to keep the starters' minutes down.
"It's conscious as long as the bench produces, then you're forced to use your starters longer minutes, which puts them in jeopardy at some point," Jackson said of his strategy.
Jackson, having signed a contract extension this week that goes through next season and has an option for 2009-10, seems happy with his situation and his team's. Asked before the game to share his thoughts about that option clause, he joked, "There's always an option to quit."
In reality, he said, his decision would depend on "how we're doing and if we can move this club forward quickly enough."
The Lakers took a decided step forward on Thursday. Not a huge step, but one significant for its persistence and for its potential as the start of something bigger.
Helene Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.