The criticism for this Lakers team, which has struggled mightily in consecutive nights against teams that have long since been out of the playoff picture, is both real and well-justified.
But regardless of the poor starts, even worse team defense, and a propensity to play down to their level of competition, the reality is that L.A. is being dragged to victory by one of the league’s best players, and that’s been pretty exciting to watch.
Kobe Bryant followed up his 23 point fourth quarter on Tuesday with a 47 point effort in Portland, which was enough to lead his team to a 113-106 victory that pushed the Lakers a full game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings.
Portland has historically been a tough place for the Lakers to play, as evidenced by L.A.’s 4-17 record there since 2002 heading into this one. But with the Blazers starting four rookies alongside LaMarcus Aldridge, and with the Lakers desperately needing this game to stay in the hunt to make the postseason, the Lakers appeared to have the advantage.
It didn’t start out that way. Whether due to playing on the second night of a back-to-back or simply due to the energy brought by Portland’s young starters, the Blazers jumped on the Lakers early, and put up 41 points in the first quarter led by 17 in the period from Damian Lillard, who finished with 38 points and nine assists.
Thanks to Bryant matching Lillard’s 17 in that first frame, the Lakers trailed by just eight despite the home team’s offensive explosion. L.A. played Portland even in the second behind another 11 from Bryant, before the Lakers clamped down defensively a bit in the second half.
The Blazers shot just 28.6 percent from the field over the game’s final two periods, while the Lakers knocked down 61.3 percent of their looks over that span. Bryant was an efficient 5-10 from the field in the second half for 19 points, and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol combined to shoot 10-13 from the field during that stretch, with the Lakers getting the ball to Gasol down the stretch for 11 fourth quarter points.
The struggles from the Lakers on consecutive nights to put away lottery teams when every win for them is so crucial doesn’t bode well for the team’s chances, should it eventually sneak into the postseason. But while it hasn’t been pretty, the wins have come nonetheless, and have come thanks to staggering performances from Bryant when his team has needed him most.
L.A.controls its own destiny in terms of making the playoffs now, with just three games remaining in the regular season. All three are at home, but they’re all against playoff teams — Golden State, San Antonio, and Houston round out the Lakers’ schedule.
The Lakers will worry about facing San Antonio or Oklahoma City in a seven game series if and when the time comes. Until then, they’ll take these wins any way they come, even if it’s required ridiculous efforts from Bryant on consecutive nights against sub-par opponents to make them happen.
It seems as though Bryant simply won’t let the Lakers miss the playoffs, regardless of what the ultimate outcome might be once his team actually gets there.