Kobe leads Lakers to thrilling overtime win over Raptors with a series of amazing shots

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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.

Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo go off for 32 points, 13 boards, lead Bucks rout of Thunder

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 13 rebounds and the Milwaukee Bucks surged to a 24-point lead in the second quarter in a 133-86 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

The 47-point loss was the Thunder’s worst of the season.

Chris Paul scored 18 points for Oklahoma City.

Both teams were without their second-leading scorers. Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton was a late scratch with a sore neck. An ankle injury kept Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari out.

The Bucks had won four in a row and the Thunder had won five straight.

The Bucks built their second-quarter lead behind 14 second-quarter points from Antetokounmpo, seven from Donte DiVincenzo, who started in place of Middleton, and back-to-back 3-pointers from Wesley Matthews.

A key moment occurred late in the second period.

With Milwaukee leading, 54-43, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer got a technical foul after approaching a referee during a timeout with 3:43 left in the quarter. That was moments after Eric Bledsoe was called for a charging foul that irked Budenholzer. After that, the Bucks went on a 17-4 run and led 71-47 at halftime.

Milwaukee outrebounded Oklahoma City, 67-36.

The Bucks made a season-high 21 3-pointers. The Thunder were 6 for 35 on 3-pointers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo shrugs off James Harden dig: ‘I’m just trying to do my job’

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There is some meat to the James Harden/Giannis Antetokounmpo beef.

Harden was pissed Antetokounmpo won Most Valuable Player over him last year and vented about it. When it came to this year’s All-Star Game, captian Antetokounmpo drafted Kemba Walker over Harden while joking he wanted someone who’d pass. After his team lost the All-Star Game, Antetokounmpo said his team’s strategy was to get the ball to whomever Harden was guarding and attack.

Harden ramped up the skirmish of words Friday when speaking to Rachel Nichols of ESPN, saying:

“I wish I could just run, run and was 7-feet and run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I’ve got to actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill.”

Antetokounmpo decided to let it die when ESPN asked pregame about what Harden said.

“I’m not the type of guy to take stabs at somebody. … I’m just trying to do my job which is win games and go back home to my family. At the end of the day, if that’s what he believes that’s what he believes. I can’t say anything about it. I’ve just got to keep being focused.”

If you’re circling dates on your calendar, March 25 is what you’re looking for, the day the Bucks host the Rockets.

Harden should believe he is the best player in the game — you don’t get to be where he is without that level of confidence. Antetokounmpo should believe the same thing about himself. We could say the same things about LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and a host of others. It’s part of what makes them great, and not a surprise.

If the MVP thing is eating at Harden he might not like this season’s outcome any better. While I haven’t done a poll, most voters I’ve spoken to have The Beard third behind Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. There’s still more than six weeks of basketball before votes are cast — and the Rockets as a team are surging — but right now, the Greek Freak looks like a repeat winner from what I am hearing.

Rockets protested game despite Tilman Fertitta’s dissent

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta talks big about his devotion to winning.

But when Houston had a chance to turn a loss into a victory by protesting due to an uncounted James Harden dunk, Fertitta balked.

Fertitta, via Kirk Bohls of Statesman:

“That’s my basketball people who got mad at ’em. Honestly, I don’t think we should have filed the protest because honestly we blew the 22-point lead. But if something is important to my players and basketball ops people, I give them a lot of leeway.”

I wonder whether Fertitta would have publicly shared his stance if the protest succeeded. I also wonder whether how supported Fertitta’s basketball employees feel considering he’s publicly revealing that he wasn’t on their side.

But this is actually one of the more encouraging stories of Fertitta’s ownership. He allowed room for debate. He listened to the other side. He posted the $10,000 protest fee.

It didn’t pay off this time, but that’s how good owners operate.

As expected, Rockets sign veteran Jeff Green for remainder of season

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Before they committed fully, Houston signed free agent Jeff Green to a 10-day contract. They just wanted to make sure the veteran forward was a fit in their small-ball system.

It turns out, he was a perfect fit.

Through four games, playing a little more than 19 minutes a game, Green averaged 9.8 points a game on a ridiculous 89.6 true shooting percentage. That’s not sustainable (he’s shooting 61.5 percent from three), but it was enough for the Rockets to sign Green for the remainder of the season, something the team announced Friday.

Green, at 6’8″, played on the wing most of his career. However, with the Rockets he backs up P.J. Tucker at center.

Green started the season a member of the Utah Jazz, but the fit there was not as clean. While he averaged 7.7 points per game in 30 appearances, the Jazz ultimately waived him to create a roster spot for Rayjon Tucker.

This contract only runs through the end of this season, but the Rockets could re-sign Green for next season, if the sides agree this summer. For now, the focus is on the Rockets’ hot streak and building on that as the league moves toward the postseason.