It was clear about halfway through the third quarter Sunday night against Atlanta Kobe Bryant was either going to win or lose the game for the Lakers.
Watching him in the context of this season, playing very well with his team still not in the Western Conference”s top eight, is fascinating. His intensity is off the charts. Not just on the dunk he threw down over Josh Smith with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter that nearly broke Twitter and prompted what was without question the most raucous response seen at Staples Center this season (for a Lakers game, at least). After hitting a deep triple to close out the third quarter, the guy slapped himself so hard across the chest, spit and drool were flying out of his mouth like some sort of wild dog.
Watch. It”s almost hypnotic, the string of saliva swaying back and forth.
He certainly didn”t expect to be in this position, with the Lakers on the outside looking in, but he”ll get them into the postseason or die trying. And so the narrative following is rightly all about Bryant. His dunk was spectacular, but the shot he made two minutes later putting the Lakers up one was more impressive. Game on the line, Bryant drove around Al Horford off the right wing, then absorbed contact from Smith — a decent leaper, I hear — and finished off the glass.
“That,” Mike D”Antoni said after with a hint of understatement, “is not easy. That”s why he gets the big bucks.”
The highlights posted by Kobe down the stretch were electric, reflecting the sort of iron will for which he”s famous. But the narrative of Bryant”s turn-back-the-clock night on what has in many ways been a turn-back-the-clock season would have been much different had that last shot over Smith rimmed out. It may have come with a heap of spectacular (the dunk, the 3-pointer capping the third quarter, etc.) but before the game winner, Bryant was 6-15 in the second half and had basically turned things into a mano-y-mano affair between himself and the five manos in Atlanta uniforms. Had that last shot not fallen, people would still be talking about the dunk, but they”d also note how Kobe took every shot but one over the final four minutes and generally monopolized the rock down the stretch on a night where Steve Nash was having enormous success working his way through the Atlanta defense.
The point here isn”t to call Bryant a ball hog, or suggest he”s putting personal glory above team success. Speaking of narratives, those are lazy ones that ought to die. Everything Bryant does these days, from the way he pokes teammates to the “Magic Kobe” transformation, is motivated by winning games. Sometimes the path he chooses to get there isn”t ideal, but we know this already. Sunday”s effort was everything people love and hate about Bryant, with all the angst and joy on nearly every trip down the floor, and he absolutely, positively came out on top.
In incredible form, no less.
Instead, what struck me was the incredibly narrow margin separating stories vastly totally different in focus and tone. If that last shot over Smith doesn”t drop, the conversation about Bryant is completely different Monday morning. The dunk is still huge, but comes with a boatload of “Yeah, but…”. Sports radio spends the day questioning chemistry and counting field goal attempts. If Smith doesn”t fumble the ball on Atlanta”s final possession, the Lakers go from gritty victors to choke artists who blew a 16-point third quarter lead, severely denting their postseason hopes in the process.
All over one point in a game featuring nearly 200 of them. This is the line the Lakers and Bryant (and certainly Dwight Howard) are currently walking, and it”s still not clear on which side they”ll land, insofar as the playoff chase is concerned, at least.
Kind of appropriate for a night where the Lakers finally get back to .500.