On a night where all of Lakerdom celebrated the career and past accomplishments of Shaquille O'Neal, the center's one-time running buddy and rival delivered a performance that kept alive the possibility — however slight — that this year's dysfunctional and damaged Los Angeles Lakers could get the chance to inflict some damage of their own come the postseason.
Kobe Bryant scored 23 points on 8 for 18 shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished 11 assists, notching the 19th triple-double of his illustrious career, to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a much-needed 101-81 win over the visiting Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday. He even played some defense, snagging four steals, blocking two shots and consistently making solid weak-side rotations to help his bigs in the paint. (Now let's keep those rotations coming, Kobe, huh?)
In a game L.A. had to have, Bryant answered the call, giving his listing Lakers a shot in the arm in the race for the West's eighth and final playoff slot ... and, in the process, possibly consigning the Mavericks to their first lottery trip since the summer of 2000, months after Mark Cuban bought the long moribund franchise and elevated it to the level of the NBA's elite organizations.
With emotions charged for the high-stakes matchup between two of the three teams (along with the Utah Jazz) vying for the No. 8 seed, Bryant let the game come to him a bit, with the Laker offense running primarily through the interior duo of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the early going and Bryant not registering his first bucket until the 6:17 mark of the opening quarter. He stepped up his aggressiveness in the second quarter, though, scoring eight points on 3 for 6 shooting from the floor and attacking Dallas defenders like Shawn Marion, as he did on this slick drive and flush:
With starting point guard Steve Nash again sidelined by injuries to his right hip and hamstring, Bryant also stepped up his facilitating game in the second quarter, dropping six dimes in the frame from a variety of positions — compromising the Dallas defense with penetration leading to drive-and-kick looks for safety-valve shooters Jodie Meeks and Earl Clark, orchestrating in the high pick-and-roll with Howard, feeding Gasol on the low block so he could go to work against undersized Mavericks big Brandan Wright, etc.
While Kobe looked for his own offense in spurts, that predilection toward passing persisted, resulting in beautiful drop-offs like this fourth-quarter feed for Gasol following an at-the-rim swat of Wright:
Helping his bigs defensively, crashing down on the defensive glass from the small forward position, looking to get both Howard (who finished with a team-high 24 points and 12 rebounds) and Gasol (14 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) fed early ... with Metta World Peace gone after knee surgery and Nash something of a shaky bet after a season full of injuries, this is what Bryant has to be for the Lakers to win, survive and make it to the postseason.
That's why he played all but 56 seconds on Tuesday and all but 23 seconds of the Lakers' Saturday night win over the Sacramento Kings; at this point in the season, Bryant needs to be everything — not just an efficient scorer, not just a willing passer, not just a determined on-ball defender and an attentive helper, but everything — all the time for L.A. to have a shot. At age 34 on a still-barking ankle, there's no time for Kobe to rest, and he knows it, according to Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:
"I just got to push through it a little bit right now," said Bryant, who noted that his back and hamstrings were a little sore from so much mileage. "Hopefully we can catch up a game, get a game or something, get a little breathing room perhaps."
The win brought the Lakers' record level with the Utah Jazz at 39-36, but the Jazz hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over L.A., having won two of the teams' three meetings this season; as a result, the Lakers will have to win one more game than the Jazz (who have won five straight) over the final seven to leapfrog Utah for sole possession of the eighth seed.
The Mavericks, though, will need much more than that — Tuesday's loss dropped them to 36-38, still two wins shy of shaving, and 2 1/2 games behind Utah and L.A. with eight games left. Making matters worse, Dallas holds no tiebreakers in the troika, having lost its head-to-head season matchups with both the Jazz and Lakers, which makes performances like Tuesday night — which saw Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki score just 11 points on 4 for 13 shooting, an awful time for a cold snap after his red-hot March — all the more difficult to stomach. From Greg Beacham of The Associated Press:
"I thought overall we didn't play well enough," Nowitzki said. "They used their length on our scorers. Coming into this building, I think the only way we beat them is if we shoot well from the floor. I didn't think we were shooting the ball well enough to steal one here." [...]
"It is a hit. It is a game we needed," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "I think everyone is frustrated. I mean, Dirk understands what this stage is about. We have some inexperienced guys that haven't been here, so this is a valuable learning experience for them, but it has a price."
With just eight games remaining, it's looking increasingly likely that the price will be the end of the Mavs' 12-year playoff run.