Kobe Wishes the Clippers a Happy Thanksgiving with his First 40 Point Game of the SeasonThere was a lot of preseason talk that the Clippers are L.A.'s best team but on Tuesday night the Lakers found a formula to silence such speculation: a lot of Kobe Bryant early plus a lot of Kobe Bryant late. Add that up and it equaled Bryant's first 40 point game of the season and a 105-101 Lakers win that vaulted them into first place in the Pacific Division. Bryant shot 12-23 from the field and 15-18 from the free throw line and had five rebounds, five assists, three steals and just one turnover. How close is he to being 100% in the wake of his offseason knee surgery? Pretty close, at least according to Bryant, who said after the game, "I'm back. I feel great." Lamar Odom had 18 points and six rebounds but shot just 6-18 from the field; Bryant's teammates made just 21 of their 66 field goal attempts. Elton Brand and Corey Maggette led the Clippers with 20 points each. Brand also had a game-high 15 rebounds. NBA TV broadcast the game, using the feed from the Lakers television network; Joel Meyers and Stu Lantz handled the call.
Odom opened the scoring in the first quarter with a drive past Chris Kaman, but most of the first quarter was the Kobe Bryant show. His first basket was a turnaround jumper over Quinton Ross, which he banked in while drawing a foul; the three point play put the Lakers ahead 7-2. Bryant hit his first three shots and the Lakers led 11-4. Andrew Bynum played good defense against Brand in the early going but went to the bench at the 8:28 mark after committing his second foul. Brand promptly scored seven points in the next 1:14 and the Clippers went ahead 15-11. Bryant pumped in 20 points in the first 12 minutes and the Lakers led 27-25 at the end of the first quarter. "Not good," said Lantz at that point, explaining that while fans enjoy seeing Bryant score a lot that the lack of balance is not good for the team. There is some validity to that way of thinking; on the other hand, Bryant shot a high percentage, scored most of his points in the paint and got to the free throw line. He exploited opportunities that the defense gave him as opposed to forcing up shots.
The Lakers gradually pulled away in the second quarter and took their biggest lead to that point when Luke Walton's three pointer put them up 38-29 with 7:29 remaining. Walton ranks among the NBA's three point field goal percentage leaders so far, which helps open driving lanes for Bryant and Odom. A few moments later, the Lakers' lead crawled to nine when Bryant scored an improbable reverse layup and made his free throw to complete the three point play. "The inventor!" Lantz exclaimed when replays of Bryant's shot were shown--but before he had a chance to patent any more shots he picked up his third foul and went to the bench for the remainder of the half.
Lantz, who played for the Lakers in the 1970s, made some interesting observations throughout the game. At one point, he complimented Brand for his strong hands but said that no one's mitts compare to Elgin Baylor's: "Once Elgin got the ball in his hands, just forget it. You'd need a sledgehammer to get it out," recalled Lantz. At the 1:13 mark, Odom picked up his third foul literally seconds after Lantz wondered aloud if Lakers Coach Phil Jackson should take Odom out of the game to prevent just that from happening. "Sometimes you gamble and lose," Lantz commented. The Clippers trimmed the margin to 51-48 by halftime. "They didn't finish the half the way that Phil Jackson would have liked, obviously, and I'm sure that he'll have some nice words of wisdom for them at halftime," Lantz said.
Brand had 14 points and seven rebounds at halftime. Bryant led the Lakers with 23 points, Kwame Brown contributed seven points and eight rebounds and Odom managed just four points, two rebounds and two assists. Hall of Famer and NBA TV analyst Gail Goodrich offered this halftime assessment of Bryant's play: "He is letting the game come to him and not forcing it."
Odom opened the third quarter like he was determined to put his sluggish first half behind him, making a three pointer on the Lakers' first possession. A couple minutes later he drove to the hoop, got his shot blocked but recovered the ball and made a layup. The Lakers found their three point stroke in the third quarter, making all five of their attempts from downtown. Meanwhile, Sam Cassell, who shot just 2-8 from the field in the first half, made his first five shots of the third quarter and scored 11 points in a five minute stretch, keeping the Clippers within striking distance at 66-63. "Sam can play forever because he plays pretty close to the ground. His risk for injury is not as high as that of other players who just attack the rim," noted Lantz.
Bryant had three assists in the first five minutes of the third quarter but he didn't forget how to score. "He's been relentless in not settling for jumpers," Meyers exclaimed after Bryant drove to the hoop and drew Ross' fourth foul at the 3:25 mark. Bryant gave a warm greeting to former teammate Rick Fox, who was seated at courtside, before making both free throws to put the Lakers up 77-66. He already had 30 points. Odom scored 10 points in the third quarter and the Lakers led 83-74 going into the fourth quarter.
From time to time you will hear people suggest that the Lakers offense flows more smoothly when Bryant is not in the game. I have one question for these people: "Have you ever actually watched the Lakers play?" Jackson's normal rotation involves resting Bryant at the start of the fourth quarter so that Bryant will be fresh for the stretch run. With Bryant on the bench, Shaun Livingston scored seven quick points and the Clippers tied the game at 83. It took the Lakers three quarters to build a nine point lead and 3:16 to lose it while Bryant sat out.
Of course, Jackson is not the type of coach who rants and raves or calls timeouts. His reaction to the blown lead? He was so concerned that he was sitting on the bench laughing after one of the Lakers' miscues. The Lakers did not score a point in the fourth quarter until Bryant came back in the game and tied the score at 85 by making two free throws at the 5:38 mark. The teams traded baskets for the next few minutes. After Bryant's fadeaway jumper pulled the Lakers to within 89-88 at the 4:38 mark, Lantz said, "He's 80%. I wouldn't want to see him when he's fully recovered." Bryant scored his 37th point when he drove coast to coast, faked Livingston out of his shorts and sank a teardrop that gave the Lakers a 94-91 advantage. Bryant capped off a 10 point fourth quarter by making a jumper and splitting a pair of free throws in the last minute of the game.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:09 AM