Trevor Ariza smiled then shook his head from the New Orleans bench. Despite being shorthanded, his team had overcome two Laker double-digit leads and led by 10 in the fourth quarter, only to lose their advantage for good late in the game to a 3-21 shooting Kobe Bryant. Ariza knew that was coming, and so did everyone on the floor.
It was Bryant’s only made three-pointer in eight tries, and only his third field goal converted in 21 attempts.
“He’s our leader,” Matt Barnes said after the game. “Whether he misses 20 shots or makes 20 shots, he’s gonna take the next shot and we believe in him.”
Despite Bryant’s poor shooting, he did hand out five assists in the first quarter, which helped launch a 14-point lead early in the game. But as habits are hard to break for these Lakers, the lead so easily created was just as easily lost, and after starting 6-9 to open the game, they went 2-12 to close the first.
New Orleans would clearly not go down without a fight; evident in their last meeting which took an overtime for the Lakers to win. The Hornets went off in the third quarter, outscoring the home team 28-18, shooting 55% and allowing the Lakers just 37% from the field. It appeared that the team should have been preparing for another loss, but instead they got behind their leader and pushed on to victory.
Bryant was 0-15 after three quarters and hadn’t attempted a single free throw, but in the final quarter, with his team down 10 points, he refused to stop trying and scored the only points he could muster in the game. With Bryant struggling, the rest of the team pulled together to get this win. Should it have been such a tough game for the Lakers? Probably not, but they found a way to win anyway and that counts for something.
Pau Gasol – Talk about a co-captain shouldering the load. Without much of anything from either Andrew Bynum or Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ leading scorers, in the first half, Gasol took it upon himself to be aggressive. He had 14 points on 5-10 in the first half alone, en route to an efficient 21 points on 8-14, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks kind of game. Gasol didn’t settle for jumpers or awkward floaters. He scored the majority of his points on dunks and drop-offs, and the Lakers can thank him for blocking Jason Smiths final shot attempt at the buzzer; a shot that may have forced overtime.
Andrew Bynum – It was his 33rd double-double of the season, and after two quarters, it didn’t look like he would make it past his 32nd…at least not today. Continually getting double and triple teamed, Bynum contributed just two points in the first half and, frankly, didn’t look very engaged in the game, but he made up for it when the second half rolled around, scoring 18 of his 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, not to mention blocking a couple of shots. Truth be told, Bynum didn’t have that enthusiasm in this game that we’ve been so accustomed to seeing this season. Whether his benching had anything to do with it is a matter of discussion, but all that aside, the Lakers wouldn’t have won this game had it not been for his contributions in the final two quarters.
Ramon Sessions – 10 points on 4-8, 10 assists, two rebounds, a steal and one turnover in just over 32 minutes of floor time. Whether he is tossing lobs to Andrew Bynum, receiving bounce passes from Kobe Bryant in transition for a dunk, or taking a rebound the length of the court and scoring on a layup, there is no doubt how different this Lakers team is with Sessions on the court. He is not only a playmaker. He’s also a proficient scorer who shoots when he can and passes it on when he knows he should.
Kobe Bryant – He’s clutch when it counts the most, what can you say? Bryant’s offensive struggles have created quite a bad streak these last few games, and fatigue has been mentioned more than a few times as the cause; even admittedly so by Bryant himself. His shot selection today was actually good though. He neither took ill-advised shots in transition, nor received the ball too late in the shot clock to attempt awkward jumpers. Other than his eight attempts from behind the arc, which has not been an efficient source of scoring for Bryant this season anyway, he was open on a few attempts and had good, close range to the hoop on others, but still missed. 3-21, 14%. Leave it to him, however, to make those shots when it counts. First it was a jumper from a pass from Gasol to help cut the Hornets’ 10-point lead, then Matt Barnes sent him another pass for a pretty fadeaway and-1. He his 4-5 of his free throws thereafter before the final blow – a three pointer over Jarrett Jack that gave the Lakers a lead in the game that they would never relinquish. He also had five assists in the first quarter.
Bench – They didn’t score in bunches tonight (just 19 points), but Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Josh McRoberts put in some quality minutes for the team. Blake hit his first three three-pointers in the second quarter, which upped the Laker lead back to a decent nine points. He’s been on the floor with Sessions the last few games, and it has been an effective combination thusfar. Matt Barnes and Josh McRoberts’ activity alone is great booster for the team, and today their hustle paid off for a combined 10 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists.
Assists – Of their 32 made field goals, the Lakers assisted on 28 of those shots. Mired in moments during the game when the zone seemed to befuddle them, ball movement eventually relieved them.
Sporadic Focus – The 15 turnovers were a low point, as was the defense in spurts and let’s not even get started on Bryant’s 0-15 through three quarters. The overarching issue with this Lakers team today and in their most recent games, however, is their lack of SUSTAINED focus. A well-played first quarter does not a victory make, and after failing to follow through with the 36 minutes that come after, the Lakers have gained losses that should have been wins had they just remained focused. A large lead in the first half has been pointless for this team because opponents have been able to take advantage of their seemingly short attention spans to take over. If the Lakers are going to get through these final games of the regular season, and get far in the playoffs, the focus needs to remain for as long as the game clock is running.
The Lakers won another close one that shouldn’t have been close at all, and they did it with their leading scorer shooting the worst he’s ever shot.
“It was awful,” Bryant said in his post-game interview. “I couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean if I was sitting on a boat.” But neither his teammates nor the Staples Center home crowd would allow him to be discouraged. Bryant walked towards the tunnel after his interview and applauded towards the crowd that had chanted his name on a day he needed it most, and he didn’t disappoint. Even Kobe Bryant needs a little encouragement sometimes.