Kobe Bryant wished the Lakers' 109-107 victory over Toronto didn't depend on his game winner
Standing in front of his locker, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant bore a solemn look that's usually reserved for losses.
He dismissed the Lakers' 109-107 victory Tuesday over the Toronto Raptors "as garbage." He chalked up his sixth game-winner of the season as just part of his responsibility, saying, "it's my job to bail us out." And when asked if there was anything positive he could take away from the team's performance against Toronto, he said, "No, not really."
It's not only striking that Bryant would express such irritation moments after nailing a 17-footer from the right side with 1.9 seconds left after getting separation from Antoine Wright. It's also striking that Bryant's mood drastically juxtaposed his demeanor following the team's 96-94 loss Sunday to the Orlando Magic. Despite the Lakers capping off a winless three-game trip with a loss to Orlando, Bryant expressed remarkable optimism. And despite the team avoiding a four-game losing streak with a win to Toronto, Bryant had a depressed and measured tone. What to make of it? It's actually pretty simple.
"With the effort we had in Orlando, it'll be tough to beat us four times [in the playoffs]," said Bryant, who scored a team-high 32 points on 11 of 20 shooting and dished out six assists. "But this thing tonight was garbage."
Of course, Bryant has been in several mood swings lately. He was part of a team-meeting Saturday where he acknowledged cursing the team out. He was also chippy with reporters following Monday's practice. But there's a reason behind the madness. Bryant clearly values the Lakers' (47-18) development over wins and losses. Sure, the Lakers' latest win gives them a three-game edge over Dallas (44-21), a four-game advantage over Denver (42-21) and a five-game cushion over Utah (41-22) in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers are still close with Cleveland (50-15) for the league's best record.
But if Bryant was really concerned with just the win total, he would've been waxing nostalgic in the locker room with reporters who were willing to offer him the praise for his clutch performance. Instead, he lamented the latest effort.
"What we have to do right now is focus on execution," he said. "A lot of times what happens is you get so wrapped up in the length of the season and wanting to win a championship, that you overlook the small things."
There were plenty of small things the Lakers didn't master against Toronto. Let's start at the end of the game where it appeared the Lakers secured the victory once guard Derek Fisher stole a pass from Hedo Turkoglu and drew a foul on Jose Calderon. Fisher's two free throws gave the Lakers a 106-102 lead with 30.6 seconds remaining.
The game was far from over, however. Calderon inbounded the ball to Chris Bosh, who quickly dumped it off back to Calderon in the near corner. He then drove past Lakers forward Pau Gasol for the layup, cutting the Lakers' lead to 106-104 with 27.7 seconds left. After Lamar Odom converted on one of two free throws for a 107-104 lead with 19.6 seconds remaining, Toronto answered again.
Calderon brought the ball up the floor and ran a high screen and roll with Bosh. Though Gasol switched, Calderon penetrated below the three-point line and then dumped a pass to Bosh at the top of the key. Bosh, guarded by Fisher, made the trey, tying it up with 9.5 seconds remaining.
"When Bosh stepped out and hit that three," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said, "everyone's heart sunk a little bit."
But thanks to Bryant's game-winner, that wasn't an issue. Lakers forward Ron Artest inbounded the ball to Gasol as Bryant flashed up toward the wing. Upon receiving the pass, Bryant then put himself in triple-threat position. He took it from there.
"I was just surveying the floor a little bit," Bryant said. "Figured they were going to double me early, so I wanted the ball in a position where I could see my cutters. They didn't come out early, and that gave me the opportunity to escape baseline once they did come and I knocked down a shot."
Not only did the shot erase the late-game lapses. It erased the early-game miscues as well. The Lakers allowed 58 points, was outrebounded 23-20 and yielded more assists, 16-7, as the Raptors finished the first half with a 58-50 lead. This was a far cry from the welcome home the Lakers had hoped for after a brutal and winless three-game trip. It turns out the Lakers couldn't escape from the same offensive and defensive inconsistency that plagued them on the road.
The Lakers sharpened up in the second half with Andrew Bynum scoring 14 of his 22 points during that stretch, a rarity given Bynum's tendency to start strong and then fade toward the end of the game. But there was not much else to boast. Pau Gasol scored 17 points on four of 11 shooting, disappeared in the second half and was even assessed a technical over a missed foul. The team defense allowed 107 points, though the coaching staff jokingly congratulated the team for holding the Raptors under their season average of 111 points. That's why Bynum had modest excitement over his good game.
"This is a stepping stone for us," he said. "But we need to come out and play better than we did coming out."
That's a long way to go. Jackson presented a wide range of factors that are hurting the team, including poor screen-and-roll defense, the team's offense against Toronto's zone, its shooting and the numerous hand injuries to Bryant (right index finger), Gasol (left hand), Artest (left thumb), Shannon Brown (right thumb) and Jordan Farmar (left pinkie). But Jackson found the main issue involved the team's hunger level, which he said will be hard to replicate from last season.
"We don't have that, not that we can't reclaim it. At some point, that's what we're trying to do," Jackson said "There are a number of ways we can find our way through this. Some of it is just about communication between the players. Some of it is just about having that spark that happens between collaboration. Some of it is just about making the games exciting for ourselves."
That was certainly the case against Toronto, with Bryant netting another clutch shot in dramatic fashion. But it's not exactly what the team, nor Bryant, had in mind.