Losing three straight games just wasn’t something L.A. had done in a while. Not once, in fact, since acquiring Pau Gasol from Memphis in February of 2008, at least until a three-game road trip through Miami, Charlotte and Orlando ended that streak.
“We don’t like losing” was Gasol’s impression of Captain Obvious after Monday’s practice.
But losing four straight? Unheard of, especially with Phil Jackson on the bench. In his 19 seasons as an NBA head coach, Jackson’s teams had lost four straight only 10 times total, and never during any one of his 10 championship seasons.
As such, there was no way the defending champs were letting that happen on Tuesday at STAPLES Center against Toronto, a near-average (32-29) team battling for 5th place in the Eastern Conference. Right?
Right … but just barely.
Kobe Bryant, of course, had the answer himself, nailing a game-winning baseline jumper with 1.9 seconds on the clock, leaving the Raptors only a full court desperation heave that fell 30 feet short.
Toronto did hang tough throughout the game, even tying things up at 107 on a Chris Bosh three-pointer with nine seconds remaining. But then Bryant rose for his seventh game-winning shot* of the season (no typo).
*Click there to watch the first six.
The play developed as Ron Artest inbounded the ball to Pau Gasol, who waited until Bryant freed himself of primary defender Antoine Wright, then evaded the double-team of Andrea Bargnani.
“I was surveying the floor, figured they were going to double me early so I went into a position where I could see my cutters,” Bryant explained. “(The double) didn’t come early, (and) that gave me an opportunity to skate baseline once they did come, and I knocked down the shot.”
“That’s one of his shots,” said Lamar Odom while smiling his own comment, realizing Bryant has seemingly hundreds of shots in his repertoire. “He could see the double-team coming, so he can just go baseline until the space runs out and fade away. It looked good … it went straight through.”
The Raptors had managed to make things pretty interesting down the stretch first by opening a 58-50 lead at the half behind 7-of-10 shooting from three. The Purple and Gold cut that lead down to three points after the third quarter (84-81), reclaimed the lead with 9:50 to play in the fourth on Odom’s left-handed layup and ultimately needed Bryant’s jumper to end the losing streak.
“I’ve worked long hours at that shot,” he added. “It’s my job to kind of bail us out (at times). That’s why baseball has closers.”
This season in particular, Kobe has certainly been Mariano Rivera.
To give Kobe a chance to shut the door, L.A. used a solid low post game keyed by Andrew Bynum that kept him in the game throughout most of the fourth quarter. The big center had little problem scoring around smallish bigs Andrea Bargnani and Chris Bosh, making 5-of-7 field goals for 11 points in the third and finishing with 22 points, six boards and two blocks.
“He was playing well,” said Phil Jackson. “If you’re a coach and he’s playing well, you better have him in the game. Andrew played well.”
Meanwhile, Gasol pitched in 17 points and nine boards, while Odom added 10 points, six boards and four assists in the second half alone as each Laker big did some work.
“It doesn’t really matter (which big man) you guard,” said Raptors forward Reggie Evans. “With L.A., pick your poison. All of them are good.”
The Raptors quickly responded to Odom’s lead-changing layup with a 6-0 run to reclaim the lead briefly, but Bryant would rattle off 14 points in the final 8:19 and finish with a game-high 32 points, plus six dimes and six rebounds.
So, the three-game losing streak was over, and it didn’t reach four (which again, never happened during any of Jackson’s 10 championship seasons). But the Lakers know they need to play better to win it again.
Derek Fisher, whom Bynum recognized publicly for motivating the team at halftime, explained that everybody wants a shot at the champs, particularly if the champs aren’t playing exactly like champs (still with us?).
“When the giant appears vulnerable or there’s a chink in the armor or an open wound, people have a tendency to go at that,” said Bryant’s co-captain. “Thus far we haven’t come across as invincible or unbeatable, so of course teams are going to believe that they can win. How we play, with efficiency, concentration, focus, that’s what teams need to feel.”
Fisher went on to reiterate, as Jackson had said after the game and Bryant earlier in the week at practice, the Lakers feel that they have ample time to build things up.
“We’re not playing at the level that we’re capable of playing,” Fisher concluded. “I don’t know exactly why – I think you could point to a number of different things – but I think we’re all confident and optimistic that we can figure it out, and we’re going to stay the course.”
L.A. will next head on the road, to Phoenix and Golden State, to continue the quest. Until then, your numbers:
4 Raptors who hit at least two three-pointers, including Chris Bosh, whose triple tied the game with nine seconds to play. L.A. hit only 3-of-15 from downtown, one each from Ron Artest, Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown.
7 First half three nailed by Toronto on 10 attempts. That helped the Raptors throw 16 assists on 23 field goals, compared to just seven dimes for L.A. on 16 makes.
28 Points in the paint for the Lakers in the second half, a 12-point edge over Toronto, who won that battle 22-16 in the first half.
32 Points for Kobe Bryant on 11-of-20 shooting and 10-of-11 free throws, none bigger than his dagger jumper with 1.9 seconds to play. It was his seventh game winner, tying the total number of wins for the New Jersey Nets.
44 Free throws attempted by the Lakers, a season high that showed the home team’s aggression.