Kobe Bryant's 47 points in 48 minutes keep Lakers in playoff picture
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Kobe Bryant held court Wednesday, in a city that loves to hate him and in a gym where he hasn't had much recent success, playing every possible second and scoring a season high to keep control over his team's playoff destiny.
The Lakers needed everything they got from Bryant in a defense-free, up-and-down shootout that saw them escape with a 113-106 victory.
Portland was without its two best wing defenders -- Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum -- and Bryant simply had his way with their replacements, scoring 47 points in 48 minutes to push L.A. a full game up over Utah for the Western Conference's No. 8 playoff spot. On the second night of a back-to-back and in a game where a loss would have dealt a major blow to the Lakers' postseason hopes, Bryant came through with his highest scoring total in more than 15 months, the most points any opponent has ever scored at the Rose Garden. This in just his third victory in Portland over his last 15 tries.
"There's no secret, there's no magic formula," Bryant said, explaining the effort. "I watch what I eat and I train my ass off. I'm in the type of condition right now that a lot of my predecessors at this age probably couldn't be in."
He then picked the logical running analogy -- a marathon -- and credited the presumptive Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, with setting an early pace that prevented Bryant from waiting until the second half to take over.
"He was out there cooking with gasoline," Bryant said of Lillard, who finished with a career-high 38 points (on 12-for-25 shooting) and nine assists. "Lillard came out and just started torching us. I figured I would try to keep up the pace. It was like a marathon runner, when a guy just takes off, and the guy behind him doesn't really want to chase after him but he has to just to keep pace."
Lillard had been in a bit of a swoon entering Wednesday but you wouldn't have guessed it. He came out gunning, matching Bryant point-for-point to hit 17 in the first quarter. Mired in what is now the league's longest losing streak at nine games, the generally calm Lillard has looked slightly more frustrated and animated in recent games. He drew his first technical foul of the season for profanely disputing a foul call in the second quarter and attacked like a man possessed.
"There was a lot of pride involved," Lillard said of his effort. "[Bryant] being a Hall of Famer and me being a rookie that doesn't back down. ... This was like the Super Bowl for us."
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni didn't skimp on the praise: "That's about as good as you can get. That's about as good a rookie as I've ever seen."
As the second half wore on, as the minutes piled up, Bryant just kept kicking, and kicking and kicking. He shot 14-for-27 on the night and scored from everywhere and in every manner: moon-ball threes, driving reverse layups, splashy mid-range jumpers and fall-down turnarounds.
"He was very aggressive, he was extremely competitive," Pau Gasol said of Bryant. "He was in a go mode from the beginning and he didn't rest a second."
Blazers coach Terry Stotts, nearly speechless, simply took his hat off: "He was on a mission. ... What can you say about a 47-point performance?"
Bryant caused so much havoc of his own that the Lakers' twin towers, Gasol and Dwight Howard, were able to finish the job inside against a Blazers team that's struggled to protect the rim all season. L.A. outscored Portland 25-16 in the final quarter after going on a 17-2 run to start the second half, with the Bryant/Gasol/Howard trio providing 23 of the fourth-quarter points. Gasol, who finished with 23 points and nine assists, twice found Howard for crippling high-low lobs in the game's final three minutes, blows for which Portland's defense had no answers.
The game's final seconds ticked off with thunderous "MVP" chants from a large Lakers contingent, and the visiting locker room was as joyous as you would expect for a team that not only won its first back-to-back of the season but also kept itself out from behind the postseason eight ball.
"This isn't breathing room," Bryant insisted, but even he looked happy and relieved. "This isn't breathing room at all. I'm still on edge. I'm still on edge."
What's next for L.A. is clear. Three games, all at home, to decide whether they maintain the No. 8 seed: Golden State on Friday; San Antonio on Sunday; Houston next Wednesday. Win out and they're in. Win as many games as the Jazz -- who have the Timberwolves twice and the Grizzlies and hold a tiebreaker with the Lakers -- and they're in.
Bryant has now played at least 47 minutes in four out of the last six games and at least 41 in six in a row. Will he play every second from here on out?
"I hope not," Bryant said. "I hope not. If I have to, I'm up to the challenge. ... I'm honest about it. If I feel like I'm out there cutting corners, I'll sit down for a minute."
He paused and flashed his conquerer's grin.