The Portland Trail Blazers caved in at the end of Wednesday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers, falling 106-101 in overtime, a disappointing loss that came after some promising, hard-fought and entertaining play.
Having just watched a renewed Kobe Bryant take home NBA All-Star MVP honors in the Staples Center this past weekend, as he tooled his younger colleagues while playing with a buffalo-sized chip on his shoulder, his late flurry on Wednesday night had that dreaded fear of inevitability, even if he hasn't often downed the Blazers in Portland in recent memory. Bryant has made a living -- a historic living -- taking over, and he took over tonight, scoring 16 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to help lead a massive, improbable Lakers comeback.
With 4:22 left in the game, the Blazers led 87-79. Over the next 9:06 (the rest of regulation and the first 4:44 seconds of overtime), the Lakers outscored the Blazers 25-10, with Bryant scoring 10 points during the stretch, including two baskets in the final minute of regulation, one of which was a jumper with four seconds left that forced overtime. He shot 5-9 from the field and 6-6 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter and overtime. After three quarters, Bryant had 21 points while LaMarcus Aldridge led the Blazers with 29 points. At the end of the game, Bryant had 37 points and Aldridge still had 29 points.
There's been a lot of debate and discussion online, prompted by ESPN's Henry Abbott, our revered Blogfather, about whether Bryant is really as clutch as his reputation suggests. Abbott has argued convincingly that Bryant's successes stick with us while his failures are forgotten, and that his reputation has been built, in part, on volume.
The players tasked with guarding him tonight weren't having any of it.
"Yeah, of course," Blazers guard Brandon Roy told me, when asked if Bryant was still the gold standard clutch player in the NBA or if it was up for debate. "He's the guy that's been doing it better than anybody. I don't quite know what the debate is. What's the debate?"
A brief explanation of the volume argument wasn't going to convince a chuckling Roy.
"Yeah, he takes [a lot of] them. I don't know, there's nothing I can say about Kobe. He's just that good. Tonight he did it to us. He did it to us a few times earlier in my career. You just know when he makes shots, it's tough."
Roy stopped short of calling Bryant unstoppable but spoke with awe about his late-game mentality. "He takes it like he doesn't care if he misses or makes them," Roy told me. "Anybody who is shooting that fearless, it's definitely -- I wouldn't say unstoppable -- but it's something you worry about. No conscience. He's never had one."
Blazers forward Nicolas Batum paused in applying the "unstoppable" label, but eventually admitted that it often feels that way. "He is very good, sometimes, yeah, he is unstoppable, sometimes. You can crowd him, get on him, he's going to find a way to score. I don't know how. Only he knows."
Batum agreed Bryant is still the most clutch player in the NBA. Asked to elaborate, he paused as if it needed no explanation. "Why would I say that? Just what I've watched for the last 15 years. We know he's going to take the ball in the end. We know that. Everybody in the world knows that. When the game is tight, Kobe is going to take the ball and take over the game."
Reminiscing on L.A.'s final offensive play during regulation - a tough Bryant jumper going to the hoop with the clock winding down - Batum couldn't come up with any obvious room for improvement for Portland's defense. "I think at the end of the game, when he tied it, Wesley [Matthews] played good defense," Batum said. "Wesley played pretty good defense and he made a tough shot. Ask Kobe how many shots he's made like this in his career."
Clearly, Bryant's late-game successes can be as indelible for his opponents as they are for his legion of dedicated fanboys, some of whom serenaded him with MVP chants down the stretch, a sound not often heard in the Rose Garden.
Brandon Roy Injury Update
Roy made his return tonight, playing for the first time since Dec. 15. He scored five points and grabbed one rebound, shooting 2-5 from the field in 15 minutes. He received a lengthy and loud standing ovation when he checked into the game in the first quarter and the jumbotron screen showed a "Welcome Back, Brandon!" message.
Roy mostly moved tentatively or hid off the ball on offense and appeared a bit cautious on defense. He hit a big three-pointer in the second half to get the crowd going. He didn't appear to suffer any setbacks. After the game he answered some questions about his health. Here's a transcript.
Just trying to get my flow back. [Trainer] Jay [Jensen] told me I was out for two months, I didn't even notice it had been that long. It was good to be back out there with the guys, they were very encouraging, it's kind of bittersweet. I was happy to be back but we would have really liked to win this game.
I thought it was great. Our fans have always been very good to me. They kind of get me going, but at the same time made me a little nervous because everyone was cheering. I was just happy to be back out there on the court.
I was more tired in the first half. In the second half, once my adrenaline kicked in and I stopped thinking so much and worrying about being tired, I thought I was much better. It's our first game in a long time and I was just happy I was out there.
Want to play in OT?
I wanted to play in the regulation but right now it's still a process and it's just something I've got to deal with and not get too antsy about it.
Feel weird coming off the bench?
No, I came off the bench a few times in the playoffs last year. I try to do whatever it takes to help us win the game.
How does he feel?
If I feel like my knees are good, I can go out there and play with some confidence and not think so much. I felt good tonight, first game back. I knew it was going to be kind of those jitters, worrying about making certain moves, once you play that stuff kind of goes away. They were cool. They were cool. I was out there playing and not worried about it.
Random Game Notes
- Not only has Portland Trail Blazers GM Rich Cho instituted a "no comment" policy, he's also apparently self-imposed a "no eye contact with reporters" policy that he strictly adhered to after the game.
- Nicolas Batum on Brandon Roy's return: "It was good to see him on the court. It's good to have him back. It's good for us to have another player in the rotation, we have a three-time All-Star coming back. It's comforting that we have our best player back on our team. That was his first game, we have to give him time. He's going to be huge for us."
- Kobe Bryant's post-game comments taken down by Andrew Tonry over at Portland Roundball Society.
- Thursday at noon is the official trade deadline. Thank you for your readership and patience during the never-ending run-up to this year's deadline. I've enjoyed it, but I'll be glad when it's over.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Well, you've got to make plays and get stops defensively. Offensively get to your spots and get the ball where it needs to go. And you've got to make shots. Shoot 64% from the free throw line, I think we're up seven, we have a couple of open looks, you have to knock down those shots when you get those opportunities.
What happened down the stretch?
Well, make plays. They made plays down the stretch. They got stops. They took away our main option at times. When they do that you have to counter and get to your second option. When you get opportunities you have to knock down shots.
Well, losing is hard. So you have that opportunity to win. Four seconds on the clock, it's our ball, we get two shots at the basket, we miss a layup and a tip-in and you've got an opportunity. Going down the stretch, certainly you've got to make plays on both ends of the floor.
How did they play LaMarcus late?
They did a good job of Gasol three-quartering, trying to take away the post pass. We have to get to our spots and seal and get deep post position in that situation. If they take away that, then you have other options that you have to execute and make the plays.
Final play of regulation. Was Brandon a decoy?
We wanted to spread the floor. That last four seconds we knew that they would probably get some switching. The play was for LaMarcus and Rudy to play a two-man game, trying to see if we could get Rudy going to the basket. They take that away, then LaMarcus goes to the basket hard. LaMarcus saw the lane and had the drive.
Brandon Roy's play
He was just trying to get in a rhythm. We ran a few sets for him. He was able to do some things. Today was all about getting him out on the floor. We wanted to keep him at 15 minutes. I thought we did that.
Open shots late that didn't go
Those are shots you can knock down. You've got an open look, you've got to take it. If you miss it you can't hesitate. You've got to be ready for that opportunity. You're going to get opportunities, teams are going to try to take away your main options, which they did with LaMarcus with the double teams. Perimeter shooting, you've got to knock those shots down.
Focus in the face of rumors
We had an opportunity to win this game. I thought we were focused, we played well enough to win we just didn't execute down the stretch.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter