The Lakers entered the 4th quarter against the Hornets trailing by 18 points, 93-75.
Up to that point in the game there was little reason to think that anything but a disappointing loss for the Lakers was on tap. Sure, they were on the 2nd night of a back to back and were coming off a tough loss to the Thunder the night before. But to lose to a team 21 games under .500 was not just going to make for an extra long flight home, it was going to put a real dent in their hopes to make the playoffs.
Then a funny thing happened in those final 12 minutes — the Lakers found their game and the Hornets fell apart.
Spurred on by a brilliant offensive performance from Kobe Bryant and a dominant defensive effort from Dwight Howard, the Lakers went on a 20-0 nothing run in the final 6:46 of the game and outscored the Hornets 33 to 9 in that final quarter to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. What was once a 25 point deficit in the 2nd half became a 108-102 Laker victory.
There really aren’t enough adjectives to describe how good Kobe was to close this game. In the 4th quarter he scored 18 of his game high 42 points and dished out 2 of his game high 12 assists. He missed only one shot in the period (and only 7 of his 21 on the night) and completely dominated a Hornet defense that had no answers for his all court attack. He hit jumpers, got to the rim in isolation, and even found ways to shake free in transition.
Meanwhile, Dwight Howard had his best defensive stretch of the season playing with 4, then 5 fouls for most of the quarter. The Hornets continuously tried to run the same isolation and pick and roll heavy attack that got them their big lead throughout the game, but Howard was there to snuff out nearly every action. He cut off driving angles, patrolled the paint, and challenged shots at the rim expertly all while avoiding the type of contact that would have sidelined him. And on the Lakers’ most important defensive possession of the contest, he had the game clinching block on a Robin Lopez dunk attempt that put the exclamation point on his dominant evening.
Of course, the Lakers wouldn’t have needed such heroics down the stretch if it wasn’t for how poorly they played in tandem with a how well a game Hornets team played.
As bad as New Orleans was down the stretch, they were just as good through three quarters. They dominated the Lakers with heady passing and hot shooting, torturing any and all defense the Lakers attempted (and that’s being kind) to play. Led by their backcourt tandem of Eric Gordon (18 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists) and Greivis Vasquez (15 points, 12 assists, 5 rebounds), the Hornets attacked the slow footed defense of the Lakers and got to their spots on the floor to set up makable shots for themselves and their teammates.
But when it came time to close out the game and put their foot on the necks of the Lakers, the Hornets didn’t have enough. Their hot shooting went cold and the plays that were so easily made before disappeared as the Lakers clamped down defensively. The Hornets closed the game by missing their last 12 shots and committing 5 turnovers, essentially giving the game away just as easily as they had taken it from the Lakers up to that point.
At the end of the contest, Kobe raised his arms, almost defiantly, as he walked off the court. His brilliance and that of his teammates turned what should have been a sure loss into a victory. They had no business winning that game, but sometimes the improbable happens.