Kobe Bryant's late-game heroics bails out ineffective bench play in Lakers' 104-99 Game 1 victory over Utah Jazz
There Lakers guard Kobe Bryant sat on the sidelines, watching the Utah Jazz dwindle away the Lakers' comfortable lead. And even if there was nothing he could do about it at the time, he maintained his anxiety level remained fairly low.
"It’s tough," Bryant admitted. "But if it really got tough for me, I’d just check myself in."
He didn't need to because Lakers Coach Phil Jackson eventually put his starters back in the lineup once the Jazz shrunk the Lakers' lead to one point with 7:43 remaining. And that's when Bryant went to work, scoring 13 of his team-high 31 points in the fourth quarter, leading to an exciting 104-99 Lakers Game 1 victory Sunday over the Utah Jazz in an otherwise unexciting and uninspiring game.
Bryant's second consecutive 30-point-plus performance couldn't have come at a better time.
The Lakers played largely uninterested in Game 1 against Utah, continuing a large trend where the Lakers defeat the Jazz with relative ease, starting with a strong start, a Utah comeback and a Lakers rally. They had gone 3-1 against Utah in the regular season, and had little trouble in the past two years in the playoffs, beating Utah in six games in the 2008 Western Conference semifinals and in five games in 2009 in a first-round matchup. That the means the biggest threat to the Lakers against Utah this series involves their own interest and attention span, especially with Utah having to absorb injuries to Memhemt Okur (ruptured left Achilles) and Andrei Kirilenko (strained left calf)
The Lakers are also playing with a limited Andrew Bynum, who currently has a lateral miniscus in his right knee and played no more than 25 minutes Sunday with an eight-point performance on four of eight shooting. "He gave us a really good effort," Jackson said. "You can tell he's limited in some of the things hes doing, but ti thought he gave us a good effort."
And then, of course, there's the inconsistent reserve unit. Jackson played them through the beginning of the fourth quarter, even as Utah went on a 9-1 run, thinking that their ability to sustain leads in Games 1 and 6 against Oklahoma City meant they should do the same against Utah. "Absolutely not," Jackson said when asked if he regretted his decision. "There's no retrospect ... I wanted to give them an opportunity to right themselves."
Instead, it gave team's stars - Bryant and Pau Gasol - an opportunity to cover up the reserves lapses. And they didn't sound thrilled one bit. Gasol, who had 25 points, 12 rebounds, a career-high five blocks and converted on a key three-point play where he made a fadeaway falling down to cut the lead to 85-84 with 5:59 left, acknowledged "it's always a little frustrating when you lose leads." Bryant, who scored 11 of the team's final 19 points, spelled out his frustrations more clearly: "Second unit’s got to play better. Simple as that. They will."
Of course, this is nothing new. The Lakers' bench went through a four-game stretch from mid to late November when the reserves were outscored in every fourth quarter. They allowed a 21-point lead against the Detroit Pistons in December to evaporate to within eight points in the fourth quarter. They experienced a Christmas Day 102-87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, with a 13-13 tie ballooning to a 19-point deficit before Jackson yanked his reserves late in the second quarter. Three days later, a 118-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns featured the reserves being outscored, 52-31. And three months later, the reserves combined for one first-half point, prompting the starters to play more in a 106-99 victory over the Sacramento Kings.
But with the playoffs around it'll be interesting to see if Jackson remains as open as giving the reserves another shot, much like he did in Game 1. In the meantime, Bryant's health seems to improve at just the right moment. I had maintained that Bryant's ability to change from a scorer to a facilitator may prove necessary, depending on how his injuries and defensive schemes may affect his play. But as Bryant made strides in that department, shifting roles from playing the defensive stopper on Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook and the offense's quarterback in setting up the bigs, Jackson thought he Bryant appeared on the verge in providing that scoring role.
And against Utah that came to true form, showing his improved knee helped give him enough lift to make late-game shots, such as his 14-foot runner or his 16-foot fadeaway. So even if the Lakers' reserves are ailing, at least Bryant isn't as much anymore.
"I was able to move around and games where we only had a day between, and it’s an early game at that," Bryant said. "It’s encouraging for me to move around and be able to do what I want to do."
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tires to split the defense of Utah guard C.J. Miles and forward Carlos Boozer in the fourth quarter on Sunday at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.