LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant doesn’t know where the energy comes from, or even how he’s able to find the physical strength to do what he does late in games, and at this late stage of his career as he plays into his 17th season.
But as long as it keeps coming, so will the Lakers.
Behind a series of incredibly difficult shots from Bryant late in regulation and in the overtime session, the Lakers completed their second improbable comeback in as many games, this time downing the Raptors 118-116 in as thrilling a contest as we’ve seen this season.
“I’m glad I’m on this side instead of the other side,” Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni said after his team, which trailed by as many as 15 points, came from 11 down in the fourth quarter to come away with the overtime victory.
For most of the night, the Lakers played abysmal defense, missing rotations seemingly every trip down the floor. It had nothing to do with Dwight Howard, who seems to be more active as each game goes by, perhaps beginning to get healthier as the season wears on. Howard finished with 13 rebounds and five blocked shots, but too many times his teammates weren’t in the right positions and didn’t rotate over in help situations.
The Raptors put 37 points on the board by the end of the first quarter, and were shooting 70 percent from the field as a team well into the second. The Lakers closed the gap by halftime, only to see it quickly shoot back up to double digits midway through the third.
That’s when Bryant began to get going.
He hit two three-pointers on consecutive possessions — the kind where he brings the ball up, lines up his defender, then fires right over him and drills the long shot, no matter how closely he’s being guarded.
The next trip down, Bryant tried to make it three straight. The shot rimmed out, but Bryant didn’t give up on the play, and got the steal of the rebound before resetting and driving the lane to throw down an emphatic two-handed slam.
The play ultimately didn’t do much to put a dent in Toronto’s lead, but Bryant’s grit provided a spark that energized his teammates moving forward. As the Lakers fought to chisel away at a Raptors’ fourth quarter lead of 11 points, Bryant’s incredible heroics down the stretch were enough to carry his team to the finish line.
Bryant connected on three three-pointers in the game’s final two minutes, with each one being more difficult than the last. The first came as the shot clock expired, and after a pump fake on defender Alan Anderson didn’t really work, but Bryant raised up from a flat-footed stance and got it to go nonetheless.
The next came off an inbounds play, which was a catch-and-shoot from the corner — except Bryant was moving away from the basket to come get the pass, and he immediately elevated and twisted to hit the shot once he received it.
That cut the Toronto lead to just one with 29 seconds left, but Kyle Lowry hit two free throws on the ensuing possession to push the lead back to three.
The next trip down, the Lakers were inbounding on their end of the floor with 8.4 seconds remaining. Bryant zig-zagged through defenders to free himself up to catch the pass, then pump-faked one defender, before shooting over a second to hit the incredibly difficult shot.
“I knew he was going to be gung ho to block the shot because he blocked one of my drives,” Bryant said afterward. “So I knew he was going to leave his feet. A lot of times that happens when it’s a late clock because the defenders don’t know how much time is really left, especially a young player. I just had to pump fake him, and got a clean look at it.”
Bryant had done enough by then, but he wasn’t finished. He had one spectacular play left, and it turned out to be the difference.
With 10 seconds left in overtime and the game tied at 115, Bryant went right around two defenders and right down the middle of the lane for the game-winning two-handed slam.
Bryant finished with 41 points and 12 assists, and almost had a triple-double, but not the kind players strive for; he finished with nine turnovers, though eight of those came in the first three quarters.
The shots Bryant made were absolutely stunning, and the dunk to cap off the effort was downright silly.
“His shots at the end of the game, that’s ridiculous,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t think there’s anybody on the planet that can do that. And he’s done it constantly for 17 years.”
Bryant seemed almost in as much disbelief as the rest of us when asked to describe how he has the energy to continue to perform like this, and honestly seemed to have no idea how much longer it will continue.
“Hell if I know,” he said, when asked how much longer he can keep doing this. “I know that I have a determination that I don’t think anybody that I line up against [has]. On any given night, I don’t think that they’re going to be able to out-will me. I just refuse to believe that.”
Bryant continues to make believers out of all of us.