HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Love ’em or hate ’em, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are a must-watch down the stretch of this season, for reasons that were ridiculously obvious during a historic (for Bryant) Wednesday night in Portland.
Bryant played the entire game, scored a season-high 47 points and finished with an unprecedented stat line as the Lakers rallied from an early 10-point deficit to beat the Trail Blazers 113-106 and move a full game ahead of the idle Utah Jazz for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoff chase with just three games to play.
The Lakers have won four out of five to continue their season-defining playoff stand, a charge led by the wicked Bryant, who torched the Blazers with 47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks and three steals — filling the box score in a way that no player before him has. (He also outdueled Portland Rookie of the Year favorite Damian Lillard, who was spectacular himself with 38 points and nine assists.)
Whether the Lakers make the playoffs or not, Kobe is going to make sure their final three games are played with an intensity and at a pace that is playoff-worthy. That’s just who he is and has been his entire NBA career. There have been times when his individual drive and focus have been detrimental to his team (early in his career for sure and again later, when he and Shaquille O’Neal battled for control of the team). There’s no Phil Jackson around this time to balance the scales.
All that said, there is no player I’d rather watch under these extreme circumstances. The Lakers’ season goes into the category as one of the greatest crimes against the game if a crew with Kobe, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash doesn’t find its way into the postseason.
Would it have been nice to see the same sense of urgency in December that we all saw last night? Of course. In or out the postseason, a CSI crew will be needed to comb through the scattered wreckage of the Lakers’ regular season. There’s no way it was supposed to go down the way it has.
Kobe’s fingerprints will be all over the wreckage, along with those of Howard, Gasol, Nash, Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak and just about anyone else inside the organization you want to throw in the mix.
Even after Bryant saved the Lakers’ bacon in Portland, the reviews seemed somewhat mixed from some of his teammates, per my main man Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com:
“It’s bittersweet,” Pau Gasol said when asked about Bryant’s dominating performance against the Blazers, in which he played all 48 minutes in a non-overtime road game for the first time in his career. “Because, I think it’s spectacular and it’s very impressive and it’s remarkable to be able to play 48 minutes and score 47 points. That’s incredible. On the other hand, I’m a player that likes to see a little bit more ball movement and better balance. I’ve always been [like that]. That’s just how I perceive this game.
“But again, he was incredible tonight. He scored a tremendous amount of points that I never scored in my life. So, like I said, it was very impressive and it’s not something that you do every night, of course.”
It wouldn’t be necessary every night if the Lakers had worked these issues out earlier in the season. They’ve been riding this roller coaster since training camp, with established veterans trying to sort out their roles — first under Mike Brown and since those first five games under Mike D’Antoni.
That they find themselves in this strange space of trying to decide if they can let Bryant will them down the playoff path his way or dive in and demand that they be a more integral part of the process, is something as remarkable as it is preposterous. McMenamin nails the Lakers’ dilemma here:
It’s walking a fine line, of course, to not give total credit to what Bryant has been doing. The Lakers need to win all these games. They have gone 5-1 in their past six with Bryant playing 45.7 minutes per game while averaging 28.0 points, 9.2 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.2 blocks. Tough to argue with that. However, if this playoff push is supposed to ready the team for a championship run, that’s where Gasol and Howard feel it’s within their right to speak up. This isn’t a sustainable formula to take the title.
“We just got to play together; that’s the biggest thing,” Howard said. “Play together. I think we got to really play inside-out. That’s what kills teams. It slows the game down. It gets me and Pau in a rhythm, and we’re able to find guys on the perimeter also. It’s tough to guard.”
World Peace joined in the chorus the night before after the win against New Orleans, when he was yelling at his teammates from the bench in the fourth quarter to not just get swept up by Bryant’s aura.
“At the end of the game, Pau was looking for Kobe, and I’m like, ‘What the hell are you looking for Kobe for? Go to work. You don’t have time for spectating. Everybody, what the f— are you looking for Kobe for? Go to work. Everybody go to work,'” World Peace said Tuesday. “The five guys that are on that floor? We go to work. We’re not watching. We don’t take pictures. That’s what you guys [in the media] are for, you take pictures. We’re not taking pictures out there. We can’t even bring a camera on the floor if we had a chance.”
The title talk from the Lakers is beyond overboard. We’re talking about a team that will have to fight with everything they’ve got just to make the playoff field. So they’d be wise to lock in on that before any chatter about playing for championships.
The only way to salvage this season in any meaningful way for the Lakers is to not only beat out the Jazz for that eighth spot, they then have to wage a hoops holy war in the first round against either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder.
The only way the Lakers get there is with Kobe showing the way, just like he did in Portland.