HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Maybe you weren’t listening when Kobe Bryant vowed that the Los Angeles Lakers would not only make the playoffs, but make some noise when they get there.
Bryant was in full Black Mamba mode Sunday night at Staples Center, carving up and then finishing off the Atlanta Hawks late with big play after big play to help the Lakers reach the .500 mark (30-30), the first time they’ve been there since Dec. 28, in a 99-98 win.
Kobe scored 11 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter, which also included this not-so-subtle reminder to Hawks forward Josh Smith that he’s still got a few hops left (hey, Magic Johnson, forget about LeBron James. Why not throw that $1 million offer at this Kobe fella for the 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest?):
With four lead changes in the final minute of the final game of a wild Sunday of action, the NBA kicked off its own version of March Madness. The playoff chase is in full swing in both the Eastern and Western Conferences as teams from the top and bottom of the standings continue jockeying for position.
And truth be told, no team will be under more pressure over the next few weeks than the Lakers, who play 10 of their next 14 games on the road (starting with Tuesday night’s tilt in Oklahoma City on TNT).
But Kobe, who high-fived Hollywood star Jeremy Piven after that retro dunk over Smith, remains the most confident man in the room.
“I have plenty left but you guys are free to criticize and say I don’t,” he told reporters after the game. “Go right ahead.”
He said his mission was simple. “I just wanted to attack. Take the game right to them. Be aggressive, be physical.”
The Hawks tried to guard with Smith and other bigs and it backfired when it mattered most. “They switched with the bigs and when they stay home with the shooters,” Kobe said, “it’s my job to cook ’em”
Did he ever. He went into his vault in the fourth quarter, particularly down the stretch, going right at Smith, Al Horford and anyone else in his path for the game-winning plays.
“That’s pretty incredible,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I don’t know where he’s getting his young legs from. But the last three or four possessions he just went to the rim and made some incredible shots. The last three or four minutes was all him.”
Smith probably has no idea where Kobe’s lift came from either. But he’ll be forced to relive being on the wrong end of that dunk for a while, as it will no doubt be added to Bryant’s season and career highlight reel.
“He’s been doing it for a long time, so you have to respect what he brings to the table,” Smith told reporters after the game. “He’s an assassin. He wants that moment. But from a defensive standpoint, I love taking a challenge like that and try to step up and try to make it tough for him. It was kind of like a tug-of-war match. We were going back and forth, and they made one more play than we did to win the game. I live for moments like this.”
The best line of the night, however, came from Kobe himself. And it had to do with his new nickname (“Vino” … which is Italian for wine) that connects to his roots and his game, which is seemingly getting better with age.
“I was in my coffin a few years ago … Vino is out of the barrel.”