What a finish.
In what is becoming standard operating procedure in games that the Lakers play against the Grizzlies, this game was a close one that came down to the final possession. Only, in this game, there wasn’t a Kobe pass and an Artest miss. It was all Kobe and he left no doubt down the stretch who would be the guy to take the last shot. And while this game shouldn’t have needed another Kobe game winner (you can add the Grizz to the Heat, Bucks, Kings, and Celtics on the list of teams that have suffered defeat by Kobe daggers in the final seconds), I think we can all agree that we’ll take it. In a game that saw all the ups and downs and shifts of momentum that drive fans crazy, it was Kobe that saved the day with another batch of heroics. It never gets old watching #24 in the closing seconds of a tight game.
The game started out with the Lakers taking control early by doing what they’d done in the five games with Kobe out of the line up. The ball movement was crisp and directed toward the post. Both Gasol and Bynum got touches early and took advantage of Memphis inside. Kobe was working the offense to get good looks on mid-range post ups and penetration. On defense the Lakers were chasing the Grizzlies around screens and contesting shots both on the perimeter and on the inside. The pressure led to turnovers and fast break chances that the Lakers converted for easy buckets. Everything was looking good and if the Lakers would have continued with this style of play, they likely would have maintained their eleven point first quarter lead and comfortably won the game. Alas, it was not meant to be.
In the middle quarters, Memphis once again showed why they are a tough match up for the Lakers. The combination of versatile scoring from Randolph, savvy and hustle from Marc Gasol, and relentless dribble attack from Rudy Gay got the Grizz back into the game. The Lakers added to Memphis’ success by an utter reluctance to go with what worked early. Too many rushed offensive sets dictated by dribble penetration. Too many one-pass-then-jumper offensive possessions. Too many times the Lakers played a style that was just sloppy, leading to turnovers (17 for the game) and Memphis was more than capable of capitalizing. By the time the the 3rd quarter ended, the Grizz had a 5 point lead and had seen leads as big as eleven. But just as the game had turned for Memphis in the middle portions, the Lakers would control the bookends.
In the fourth quarter the Lakers would find their stride again, especially on defense. Almost every Memphis shot would be challenged and every rebound would be contested. And slowly but surely the Lakers would come back and make this a game in the final minutes. Yes there was faltering down the stretch. The Lakers would miss five consecutive free throws and would see a deficit in the final two minutes would match that miss total. But in the end, the Lakers would make enough plays to pull out the win. Scratch that, Kobe would make enough plays to pull out the win. When the Lakers needed him most, Kobe was there with a long two pointer to cut the lead to 3. When the deficit was still three, Kobe would nail an even longer three pointer to tie the game as the players at the end of the Grizzlies bench buried their heads in their hands. Then, after a missed Pau jumper and even more important FT’s missed by OJ Mayo, Kobe would have one last chance to make his mark on this game and make his return even more memorable. Of a beautifully diagrammed inbounds play (give Phil credit here, he drew up a fantastic play that sprung Kobe clean), Kobe would circle to the extended right wing and find himself wide open. Much like the game winner against Sacramento earlier this season, Kobe knew exactly what to do with the game on the line with no defender in sight. In a moment that has become all too familiar for Lakers’ opponents, Kobe rose up and nailed another game winning shot. The fact that there were 4 seconds left really didn’t matter as OJ Mayo’s shot – a very good look, though over an outstretched Pau Gasol arm – went long. Ballgame.
As I mentioned earlier, watching Kobe close out games never gets old. Yes, the team could have played better. Once again our back up guards played forgettable (their stats were okay, but they had no impact and played outside the system for most of the night). And we had another game where our three point shooting was sub par. Plus Artest shot poorly again (though he did play inspired defense in the 4th quarter). I haven’t even mentioned Bynum being unable to stay out of foul trouble for the entire second half and how he ended the night with only four rebounds. Nor have I mentioned that Odom played without the energy that he’d displayed over the past two weeks when Kobe was out. You know why none of that got mentioned? Kobe made me forget until now. He’s been doing that a lot this season. Cherish these moments, Lakers fans. We’re blessed with watching one of the all-timers make his mark on this league.