The Lakers did not play well in Friday night’s 94-80 loss to Dallas (OK, they did the opposite).
Yet coming off an emotional Ring Night win to open the season and again playing without Pau Gasol, a loss in October wasn’t exactly the end of the world for the Lakers.
That, of course, didn’t mean that Kobe Bryant was at all interested in losing again.
So on Sunday against Atlanta, he scored 31 points in three quarters to open a 22-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, then checked back in to thwart a Hawks’ comeback attempt that had cut L.A.’s lead to 10 points with just over four minutes remaining. When the final buzzer sounded, Bryant had amassed 41 points, eight rebounds, three assists and five steals to lead the Lakers to their second victory of the young season.
As good as he was, and as easily as he found the bottom of the bucket, Bryant credited the outstanding defensive energy of Ron Artest (who locked up Joe Johnson after he had scored 18 first quarter points mostly on Bryant) and the all-around play of Lamar Odom (who nearly reached a triple-double with 11 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists) without mentioning his own name.
But it was Bryant who came out in attack mode particularly to start the game and the second half, almost as if to let his teammates and the Hawks know how things would turn out before they got any other ideas. The Finals MVP went for 13 points in an otherwise tepid first quarter as the Lakers held a two-point lead, then exploded in the third for 14 more points to turn a six-point halftime edge into a 22-point lead heading into the final quarter.
Not that it was a surprise to anyone in the building. After all, of L.A.’s 17 regular season losses last season, only four came in back-to-back style, and Atlanta’s Maurice Evans – who used to guard Bryant in practice when he was a Laker – was wary of No. 24′s expectations prior to the game.
“You have to focus on bringing the effort and energy for 48 minutes or as long as you’re out there because he doesn’t have weaknesses,” said Evans. ” He constantly attacks and he’s constantly effective out there, so if you don’t match his energy he’ll just roll over you.”
“Roll over” the Hawks did not, but they also had no answer whatsoever for Bryant.
Since Evans comes off the bench for Atlanta, the first time he saw Kobe face-to-face came with 3:16 left in the first quarter, and Bryant faced him up about 17 feet away from the basket. Evans stayed off Kobe a few feet, attempting to take away driving lanes, so Bryant simply rose up and nailed a jumper for his 10th point of the quarter. Evans was more successful on Bryant’s next shot, a turnaround fadeaway from nearly the same spot, but when Evans lost Bryant in transition three possessions later, Kobe sprinted to the corner and knocked down a three-pointer. What Evans had yet to see was Bryant on the block.
“I think that as he gets older his body takes more of a beating, so if he’s able to get it in a good position down low, he doesn’t have to expend as much energy to score the ball,” Evans said. “I’d almost prefer to see him on the block, because that way you can get quick help from a double-team. But out there on the perimeter, he has everything at his disposal.”
It was on the perimeter where Bryant scored his first bucket of the second quarter, with just under three minutes remaining, but his second came on the block, after a tough catch in the paint and a layup high off the glass with Johnson attached to his hip. Moments later, Bryant snatched a rebound and raced down court, fended off a Hawk and finished with a finger roll. That was a harbinger for the third quarter, when Bryant would swipe three balls from the Hawks precluding three emphatic dunks at the other end. Mercifully for Atlanta, Bryant went to the bench after scoring 14 points with three assists, three steals and two boards in the period.
After the game, Andrew Bynum explained what happens to opponents when Bryant is particularly motivated, whether it was because L.A. had lost badly two nights earlier or (at least in part) due to Johnson’s early offensive success.
“I think Kobe is at a level now where (he can do what he wants),” said Bynum. “Joe (Johnson) started early but the real difference between those two is (that) Kobe is able to keep it going. All he really did was make Kobe mad, and that’s not very smart.”
Mad, or just extremely good, Bryant checked back in with 6:25 left in the game after Atlanta had trimmed eight points off L.A.’s lead. He made quick work of Atlanta’s defense, first driving down the left side of the lane for a layup. Next came a layup from the right side after an offensive board, then two free throws after drawing a foul on Al Horford, and finally another layup after another offensive board.
And so, while there was plenty of credit to be given to his teammates (“I told [Ron Artest] the game was on him,” said Bryant), No. 24 was OK himself.
Just ask Evans.
“We have so many talented guys that can put the ball in the hole at that two/three position – like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James – but Kobe is definitely the sharpest, in my opinion,” he said. “He’s been doing it the longest and he has the championships to give him that extra confidence.”
97 Time Kobe Bryant has reached the 40-point mark in his career after another 41.
64.7 Shooting percentage from L.A.’s bench (11-of-17), including Josh Powell’s 3-of-3 and Luke Walton’s 4-of-6.
20 Turnovers for the Hawks, due primarily to 14 steals from an aggressive Lakers defense.
3 Blocked shots for Ron Artest, who had his best all-around game this season. He added 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists, not to mention the praise of his teammates and head coach for a terrific defensive effort.
2 More assists Lamar Odom needed to reach a triple-double (11 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists).