Efficient Bryant, Versatile Gasol and Aggressive Odom Lead Lakers to 111-104 Victory Over UtahKobe Bryant attempted just 10 field goals but scored a team-high 26 points as his Lakers beat the Utah Jazz to move within one win of the franchise's first appearance in the Western Conference Finals since 2004. Bryant shot 6-10 from the field and 13-17 from the free throw line while also dishing off for seven assists and tying for second on the team with six rebounds. While he did not seem to be quite as explosive as he normal is, Bryant did not show any serious adverse effects from the back spasms that hindered him down the stretch in game four. Lamar Odom added 22 points and a team-high 11 rebounds, frequently slashing to the hoop for soaring dunks. He certainly understands how much he and the other Lakers benefit from Bryant's presence: "Kobe is so good offensively that you have to expect to catch the ball in places where you can really be aggressive. The whole team leans toward him. When he's passing and looking for all of us, he makes us really hard to guard." Pau Gasol had 21 points, eight assists and six rebounds--all of them on the offensive glass, with the biggest one being a put back at the :20 mark in the fourth quarter to give the Lakers a 107-102 lead. All five Lakers starters scored in double figures and three of them attempted more field goals than Bryant, who did an excellent job of spreading the wealth. Deron Williams led Utah with 27 points and 10 assists. Carlos Boozer had 18 points and 12 rebounds but he shot just 6-16 from the field and in this game Gasol's length and mobility on defense trumped Boozer's strength and footwork in the post.
Bryant opened the game by making a jumper and a three pointer, sending a message to both teams that he would be a major factor throughout the game regardless of how his back felt: "I just had to pick my spots. I knew I wasn't 100 percent healthy, so I wanted to get us off to a good start, give us an emotional boost. Then in the third quarter, there were moments where I had to pick it up, and I was able to do that. And in the fourth quarter, Lamar and Pau took it from there." Bryant scored nine points in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 29-26 lead.
Gasol took over in the second quarter, scoring 15 points as the Lakers pushed their advantage to 61-54 by halftime. The Jazz responded with a strong third quarter to tie the score at 81 going into the fourth quarter. Bryant scored 10 of the Lakers' 20 third quarter points.
Bryant did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter but his dribble penetration repeatedly broke down Utah's defense and directly or indirectly created open shots for his teammates. The Lakers maintained a small lead for most of the quarter but could not pull away. They were ahead 101-96 after Derek Fisher made a pair of free throws at the 2:43 mark but then reserve guard Sasha Vujacic foolishly got a technical foul (side note: the vaunted Lakers bench shot 3-17 from the field, "led" by Vujacic's 1-11--and this is with Bryant drawing multiple defenders and setting him up for wide open jumpers). The resulting Kyle Korver free throw followed by a Williams three pointer quickly made the score 101-100. The Lakers desperately needed a score and Bryant delivered on cue, drawing the defense and dishing to a cutting Odom for an emphatic dunk. Williams missed a three pointer but Mehmet Okur grabbed the rebound and scored. Then Gasol scored on a nice post move, Okur missed a three pointer and Gasol got his game-clinching tip in after Vujacic missed a three pointer--another open shot created by Bryant, though he obviously did not get an assist because Vujacic did not convert.
Home teams are now 19-1 in the second round of the playoffs but unless Bryant reaggravates his injury the Lakers should be able to finish this series on Friday in Utah; he refused to make excuses after game four but anyone who watched the game realizes that had Bryant not been injured he most likely would not have had his shot blocked twice down the stretch and the Lakers would have gotten the one road win they need to prevent this series from going the distance.
Bryant is taken for granted not only for his excellence--he is the only player in the league about whom it can truly be said that he has no weaknesses--but also for his toughness, as the L.A. Times' Mark Heisler explained in a piece that ran before game five:
Only one thing kept Bryant's performance in Game 4 from rising to the mythic level of Willis Reed limping out for Game 7 in 1970 and the flu-ridden Michael Jordan beating the Jazz in 1997
The Lakers didn't win.
Otherwise, it would have been one for the ages: Bryant looking like Charlton Heston in "El Cid" whose body was tied to his horse and sent back into battle, leading them back from a 12-point deficit in the last 3:59 of regulation.
If Lamar Odom had made his three-pointer to put them ahead with :13 left and they'd gone on to win, people would have talked about this game as long as there was an NBA.
Instead, the Lakers lost in overtime . . . and Bryant was critiqued for all the shots he took in overtime?
We're not getting a little hard-boiled, are we?
An ordinary player wouldn't have even seen the fourth quarter, much less found a way to lead the rally that forced the overtime.
Gee, haven't we been at this point before . . . annually? Or to put it another way, welcome to Bryant's career.
If you've ever had back spasms--and research suggests that the vast majority of people will get them at some point in their lives--try to imagine playing effectively at the elite level of professional sports while dealing with that kind of pain and stiffness. Heisler is right that Bryant's game four performance was special--and Bryant's game five effort just three days later was also special.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 AM