The Lakers may have locked up home court advantage throughout the Western Conference Playoffs with Friday evening’s win at Minnesota, but that didn’t take the intrigue out of Sunday afternoon’s contest against potential first-round playoff opponent Portland.
In fact, it’s hard to draw up a more dramatic, or more strange, final minute of regulation in which the Blazers appeared to have the game locked up … then lost … and finally won again, 91-88.
With Portland up five points and 55 seconds remaining on the clock, Kobe Bryant nailed a deep 3-pointer, then capitalized on Sasha Vujacic’s drawn charge to convert a driving and-1 layup around LaMarcus Aldridge to put L.A. up one with 31 seconds to play. However, Portland got a put back layup from Marcus Camby on Aldridge’s miss to retake a lead that Bryant could have erased after drawing a foul with 6.9 seconds to play to head to the free throw line. Instead, he improbably missed both attempts.
Just as strange, Derek Fisher missed the front end of his two freebies that resulted from Pau Gasol’s rebound and Andre Miller’s foul, though his second attempt tied the game at 88 with 4.7 seconds on the clock.
“Not two back-to-back,” was Phil Jackson’s reaction to whether he’d ever seen L.A.’s best two foul shooters miss down the stretch.
As it turned out, the misses may not have mattered, as Fisher fouled Martell Webster behind the three-point arc with 3.1 seconds to play, and Webster hit all three to put Portland up 91-88. Still with us? Needing a triple to tie, it was Gasol, not Fisher or Bryant, for whom Phil Jackson drew up the final play, but the Spaniard missed a good look wide right.
“Crazy,” was Blazers’ coach Nate McMillan’s feeling on the ending. “That was just crazy. We fouled Kobe, they foul us, Kobe missed two free throws, Fisher missed a free throw. I mean, just a crazy ending. I’m glad we were on the winning side of that though.”
With the victory, Portland took a big step towards avoiding the Lakers in the first round by drawing even with San Antonio in the standings (49-31) – against whom they own the tiebreaker – with two games to play, both of which come at home.
The Blazers managed the win despite losing Brandon Roy to a sore knee in the first half by shooting 45 percent and outrebounding the Lakers 46-41. Bryant struggled from the field in his first game after taking two off to rest his various injuries, making 8-of-23 shots for 20 points. Double-doubles from Gasol (23 and 12) and Lamar Odom (16 and 15) weren’t enough to counter L.A.’s lack of bench production (eight points on 3-of-15 shooting).
“I told the team that we looked to give this game away and we certainly did,” said Jackson.
In the first quarter, the Lakers stormed out of the gates on an 11-2 run, swarming Portland on defense to create three turnovers, but the Blazers steadily got back into the game, coming to within three points at quarter’s close at 23-20. Bryant made 3-of-5 shots, all in the paint, before two misses at the end of the quarter, while Ron Artest notched all six of L.A.’s assists in the period.
It was a seesaw second quarter as the Blazers first managed to knot the score at 27 before L.A. cracked down defensively while building an 8-point lead at 46-38 with just under two minutes to play. Then Portland pushed back with a 7-0 run to close the half, cutting L.A.’s lead to one heading into the third.
The Blazers kept up their solid run of play to start the third, riding LaMarcus Aldridge in Roy’s absence to build a 6-point lead before the Lakers rallied back to reclaim the lead heading into the fourth, 71-69.
Things tilted quickly back the other way for Portland, which took advantage of L.A. starting 1-for-12 from the field in the fourth to eventually build a 7-point lead with 3:34 to play when Webster hit all three free throws after Odom bumped him on an attempt behind the line, the first of two fouls on Webster behind the line about which Phil Jackson wasn’t happy.
Then came the “crazy” final stretch, the importance of which Bryant downplayed after the game, his concern lying more with getting his body ready for the playoffs.
“It’s a little rusty, a little stiff from not playing, not being active,” he said of his right knee. “I’ll be fine. It’s nice to get out there and play a little bit, loosen up the joints.
“The rest did me good. You can’t rest too much because then you get rusty and your joints get stiff.”
The Lakers, who fell behind Orlando in the race for the NBA’s second overall seed, have two games left before the first round of the playoffs likely starts a week from Sunday.
Until then, your numbers:
1 Huge dunk through traffic produced by Sasha Vujacic, his first since last season in Sacramento.
3 Improbable missed free throws from Kobe Bryant (2) and Derek Fisher (1) in the game’s final minute.
6 Turnovers for the Lakers, a season low, all of which came on offensive fouls; Phil Jackson said he was pleased with that aspect of the game.
8 Bench points for the Lakers on 3-of-15 shooting.
27 Combined rebounds for Lamar Odom (15) and Pau Gasol (12), though L.A. lost the battle of the boards 46-41 to the Blazers.