Kobe Bryant's game winner in 99-98 victory over Memphis Grizzlies shows clutchness can't be duplicated
Had Lakers guard Kobe Bryant had the luxury of traveling back in time, it'd be interesting to see if he actually followed through on the playful suggestion provided by forward Luke Walton.
Bryant sat out last Thursday in what would become a one-point loss to the Boston Celtics, a game that came down to guard Derek Fisher airballing an off-balance 21-foot shot. Though much more went into determining that outcome, Walton joked next time Bryant may want to just sit on the sideline and wear a uniform in case his services are needed for a game-winning shot.
Bryant didn't need to resort to those tactics Tuesday against Memphis because he had determined his sprained left ankle and injured tendon was healthy enough to play after missing the past five games. And he didn't waste any time showcasing his worth in his 1000th career game, nailing a game-winning 26-foot three-pointer with 4.3 seconds left that gave the Lakers a 99-98 victory over Memphis.
It has become a familiar script for Bryant during his storied 13-year career, marking six-game winners this season. Yet, when Coach Phil Jackson was asked afterwards if Bryant's late game heroics still amazed him, he simply smirked and downplayed Mamba's clutchness.
"He's lucky, he said in an obvious joking manner. "Very very lucky."
The Lakers were lucky they had actually won the game, not because of Bryant's heroics, but because they were actually in contention late in the contest. Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher combined for one of six from the free throw line in the final 4:35, but Memphis guard O.J. Mayo missed two foul shots with 18 seconds remaining. The Lakers yielded 55 points in the second and third quarter, but made the difference defensively in the first and fourth quarters, holding Memphis to a combined 33 points. The Lakers forced 17 turnovers, but they also committed 17 turnovers. They led by as many as 14 points in the first half, but Memphis entered the fourth quarter with an 81-76 lead.
Bryant had a well-rounded 32 points on 13 of 19 shooting, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks, Meanwhile, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest combined for only eight points on three of 15 shooting, overshadowing Artest's strong defense on Rudy Gay (7 of 17). Center Andrew Bynum fouled out with 2:07 remaining. And Pau Gasol's 22 points on eight of 18 shooting featured some missed opportunities late in the game.
Yet, the Lakers (43-14) head into tomorrow's game against Dallas on a high note, with Mamba's game-winner allowing the team to sweep any problems under the rug. It's troublesome the Lakers had to depend on Bryant's late-game heroics, but it's clear he's a necessity whenever the Lakers do have a game that doesn't feature their best basketball. This isn't a new revelation, obviously. But with Bryant's return, there was legitimate debate on how the team would need to adjust in ensuring the same collective effort during Bryant's absence while also fostering Mamba's scoring capabilities. What isn't debatable is that so far this season Bryant is the No. 1 option when it comes to last-second shots.
You only need to brush up on games his teammates attempted game-winning shots to know why. In a 95-93 loss Feb. 1 to Memphis, the last 21 seconds didn't go exactly as planned. Bryant brought the ball up the court, Gasol ran a screen and roll at the top of the key, Mayo and Marc Gasol effectively switched and Bryant had nothing open with three seconds remaining. He passed to Artest in the near corner for a three-point attempt, but the shot went off the rim as time expired. And in last week's loss to Boston, Fisher was forced to muster an off-balance 21-foot shot with only 2.2 seconds remaining. But it resulted in an airball.
Bryant made sure the Lakers would be on the winning end this time around. With Artest inbounding the ball with 8.8 seconds remaining, Gasol flashed to the near side of the perimeter and then passed to Odom at the top of the key. While Bryant cut to the the three-point line, Gasol set a screen on Gay. Odom then passed to Bryant, who quickly released the three-pointer. Swish.
That wasn't the only play that defined his play. He scored 11 of the team's final 12 points while also making an effort for the team to make plays. But it didn't.
Fisher drove in heavy traffic as the Lakers trailed 95-90 with 3:55 remaining, drew a foul and missed both free throws. Artest swiped Zach Randolph's pass on the other end, but his three-pointer from the top of the key went wide left with the score remaining the same with 3:23 left. Odom made a poor pass along the baseline, giving Memphis some comfort with a 96-92 lead with 1:57 remaining. Gasol tried to get the rebound off Bryant's missed layup, but Randolph grabbed the rebound, as Memphis led 96-93 with 1:22 left. Bryant tried directing Gasol on a pick-and-roll and dumping it to him inside, but Gasol's five foot jumper hit glass, as the Lakers trailed 98-96 with 25 seconds left.
Bryant instead filled the void in the final minutes. After cutting to the far end of the court, Fisher found him for an open jumper, cutting Memphis' lead to 95-92 with 2:21 remaining. Bryant converted on a technical free throw assessed to Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins, cutting the deficit to 96-93 with 1:39 left. His three-pointer at the top of the key, following Gasol's screen on Mayo, tied the game at 96-96 with 54 seconds remaining. And then, of course, there was Mamba's last shot, the one that provided the Lakers the victory and served as the biggest reminder why the Lakers missed him.
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Photo: Pau Gasol hugs Kobe Bryantafter the Lakers pull out a 99-98 victory over the Grizzlies on Bryant's three-pointer with 4.3 seconds remaining Tuesday night in Memphis. Bryant had missed the previous five games due to an ankle injury. Credit: Mike Brown/EPA.