Lakers grind out an 84-80 victory over Portland Trail Blazers by staying resilient
Tugging at his jersey, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant yelled out to no one in particular.
He high-fived courtside fans. He pumped his fist in delight. And he stared out to the 18,997 at Staples Center with the signature glare that defines his intensity and competitiveness.
But Bryant appeared angry, even more so than usual, after drilling what he called "my shot" -- a baseline jumper over Portland's Brandon Roy that gave the Lakers a five-point lead with 32.9 seconds remaining. Afterward, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson remained coy concerning Bryant's emotions, saying, "It was just normal. You mean pulling his jersey over his head and running up and down the court was animated?" It became apparent, however, Bryant needed to let out all the frustration about the elements surrounding the Lakers' 84-80 victory Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers.
In addition to nursing a sprained left ankle that took away nearly all his practice time and shooting rhythm, he also dealt with soreness in his neck and shoulder after accidentally butting heads with Minnesota's Martell Webster. Also, the Lakers learned they'd be without Andrew Bynum because of a two-game suspension for throwing Timberwolves forward Michael Beasley to the ground with his forearm, a ruling the Lakers unanimously deemed too harsh, saying the incident warranted only a one-game suspension, if any at all. The Lakers went through defensive lapses without Bynum's presence, allowing Portland to out-rebound them 45-35 and record 21 second-chance points. The Lakers went through a six-minute, 36-second stretch -- from the 2:23 mark in the second quarter to the 7:47 mark in the third -- in which they continuously struggled against Portland's zone defense and didn't hit a field goal. And there was the never-ending quest in adjusting to non-whistles, as indicated by Bryant first going to the free-throw line with 5:23 remaining in the third period.
"Yup," Bryant simply said in acknowledging that all those factors led him to burst out in frustration after his clutch shot.
Interestingly enough, the same play that epitomized the Lakers' clutch effort against Portland in officially securing the Pacific Division and a playoff appearance contrasted with the reason why the Lakers won, or "survived" as Jackson put it: They simply ground out a victory with poise when so many things didn't go right.
"To do what we're trying to do and what we have done, there has to be a purpose and a reason that's bigger than you," said Derek Fisher, who scored four points and made two clutch steals in the fourth quarter after being limited for the first three with four fouls. "It comes with the respect you have with the other people you have on your team in the locker room that keeps pushing you. You play through injuries and play through bad games and play through whatever situations you face because you don't want to be the weak link in the chain. You really want to come through for the group. It takes time to build that."
The Lakers made progress in that effort, overcoming the initial struggles by making key defensive stands and baskets to secure the victory.
Pau Gasol's putback off Bryant's missed shot after receiving a pass backdoor from Ron Artest, which cut the Lakers' deficit to 53-48 with 7:47 left in the third quarter, may have given the Lakers a psychological boost, considering it ended the stretch where the Lakers didn't hit a field goal, a period Jackson blamed on "poor shots and poor organization." The Lakers may have also been inspired by Matt Barnes' 39-foot heave that cut the Blazers lead to 66-62 at the end of the third quarter. But the real defining plays came late in the game, plays Jackson said "created better awareness."
Those plays belonged to many.
Bryant made the clutch shots: In an isolation play, he cut through the lane and made a left-handed reverse layup while falling down to cut the lead to 74-72 with 4:19 remaining. He softly finished a fast-break two-handed dunk to tie it up 76-76 with 2:22 left. And he made two consecutive jumpers that showed his elevation improved after starting off the game shooting four of eight in the first half, zero of four in the third quarter and five of eight in the final period.
"It's important at some point in the game to rebound defensively like we did in the fourth quarter," Bryant said. "We got easy points off our defense."
Fisher provided another of the performances that makes him a clutch player in the postseason: His steal gave him an open left-handed layup for a 78-76 lead with 1:45 left. Another steal set up Bryant's wide open dunk. And Fisher's pull-up jumper on the right block, which gave the Lakers a 84-80 edge with 10 seconds remaining, added another chapter to his 15-year reputation for making late-game baskets, a habit that doesn't surprise Jackson because "he gets better as the game wears on, and the big play is part of his character."
"When it comes down the stretch, I'm not uncomfortable making the play," FIsher said. "It's not always going to be to make a shot, but defensively being in the right spot at the right time. You get a steal and that allows you to go down and make a shot. I don't over think about it being the end and saying, 'Give it to me.' But I do relish the opportunity to help us win, whether it's the first quarter or fourth quarter."
Those kind of plays became necessary because of the Lakers' initial inability to handle Bynum's absence. Lamar Odom handled the absence appropriately, sliding into the starting power forward position by logging 16 points and 11 rebounds, an effort Jackson said "was really good." But Gasol didn't do as well. His six-of-15 mark from the field demonstrated his never-ending reliance on shooting mid-range jumpers and rarely attacking the basket. His 13 rebounds were an improvement over the five boards he logged the previous four games, but the effort overshadowed his getting continually exposed on help defense and preventing the Blazers from cashing in on offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities.
Odom's assessment on how the Lakers' became too reliant on Bynum averaging 13 rebounds and 2.58 blocks since the All-Star break spoke both to himself and Gasol.
"Andrew takes up so much space and he's so big that sometimes with him on the court we cannot do the little things like box out and make the right rotations," Odom said. "He bails us out with his size. Tonight that was point, but we made up for it in the end with the right defensive plays."
That of course led to more offensive plays. Gasol, who played 45 minutes in Bynum's absence, came through when Bryant threw a jump pass to him in the lane for an open layup that cut the Blazers' lead to 76-74. But Odom appeared more engaged with feeding off Artest's assist to cut the gap to 72-68, hitting on a six-foot jump shot a possession later and getting a key steal that prevented Portland from tying.
"The way Andrew has been playing and as aggressive as he's been on the glass, he's chasing them," said Gasol, who also blamed the effort on long rebounds. "If he chases them and you chase them too, he's probably going to get them before you do. So as long as he keeps that activity up, you say, 'OK, go get it.' So when he's not out there, we obviously have to pick it up, chase them, put bodies on people and go get them ourselves."
But with exception of Artest drawing a technical foul on Gerald Wallace -- a play that Jackson said was "two guys getting after it and trying to out-muscle one another" -- the Lakers maintained their composure even when things weren't pretty. That's why Jackson said he told his team afterward that "they saved a game they could've easily lost."
That resiliency may not show up in the box score, but it can surely show up in postseason appearances when the stakes are even higher. Add that quality to Bynum's renewed toughness and "earning his stripes," as Bryant put it, and the Lakers appear to remain tough to beat.
"This could be a potential playoff opponent," Bryant said. "We both know that. It was elevated because of that."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant #24 reacts after a fourth quarter basket against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Staples Center. Lakers won 84-80. Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / US Presswire