By Sam Amick
LOS ANGELES – Upon further examination, it’s quite obvious why Kobe Bryant didn’t want his much talked-about left ankle to be examined following the Lakers’ Game 4 failure.
He wanted to keep the surgically inserted spring a secret.
Post-crutches, post-24-hour icings and treatments and the well-chronicled refusal of an MRI from team doctors, old man Bryant turned the corner and saw the kind of lane he used to always speed right through. His golden era had typically dictated something different, though, perhaps a mid-range pull-up or a twisting layup in traffic.
But his Lakers were struggling once again against this feisty Hornets team, one that clearly had no fear of the two-time defending champions and no inclination to go away on its own accord. So Bryant went retro on Tuesday night at Staples Center, rising up off two feet and hammering a right-handed dunk over Emeka Okafor in the second quarter that may have put the Lakers back on track in their three-peat attempt.
They would recover from an early nine-point deficit and recapture the lead moments after Bryant’s dunk, and never trail again in a 106-90 victory. And just as they had a year ago when Oklahoma City put a scare into them with an identical 2-2 tie in the first round, the Lakers followed Bryant’s lead to seize control of a series that they can now close out in New Orleans on Thursday.
“That’s what he does,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. “All this talk about his ankle — did it look like his ankle was hurting? OK then. It is what it is. He made a spectacular play.”
It wasn’t just one play, though. It was the poster play for the night, one that was accompanied by a distant second-place finisher when Bryant drove past Trevor Ariza and Carl Landry for a left-handed, third-quarter dunk that put the Lakers up 10.
The Lakers and Hornets had switched roles and thus switched momentum, with Los Angeles entering an attack mode that left Williams agitated afterward.
“In my opinion, when we went to the basket tonight, they were putting us on the floor,” the first-year coach said. “At some point, you have to know how to make a playoff foul. And whether it comes from this experience with our team, we have to learn how to not allow him to get that play off.”
A reporter relayed a comment to Bryant from Lakers guard Shannon Brown afterward, saying how his last memory of such aerodynamics from the 32-year-old Kobe came when the future Hall of Famer had an Afro.
“Yeah, and [Brown] was like 2 [years old],” said Bryant, who finished with 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting. “[The dunk] is a message for us that this is important, to raise up and do what we got to do. I save those. I don’t have [many] of those left.”
What he does have, of course, is the kind of supporting cast that the Hornets simply don’t. The Lakers found their way mostly because their frontcourt found new life. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined to outrebound Landry and Emeka Okafor 18-9 and outscore them 34-13.
The physicality was contagious, with the Lakers dominating in all of the hustle areas after that had been the Hornets’ hallmark in their wins. Chief among them, New Orleans had just two second-chance points to the Lakers’ 22.
“At this point, we all have to step up and play whether Kobe is limited or not,” said Gasol, who had three blocked shots to go with his 16 points and eight rebounds. “We should [play that physically] all the time. Tonight was definitely a game we needed to play physical, to control the boards, use our bodies. It was a good effort.
“You have to fight back. You’re going to get bumped and pushed and shoved, and you have to push and shove back. I established myself better. I was able to absorb and deliver contact throughout the game better. If our frontcourt is able to outplay their frontcourt, it’s a big plus. It doesn’t mean we’re going to win, but it’s a big plus.”
This was a staring contest coming in, with both teams stubbornly sticking to the game plans that got them here even if they hadn’t always worked. The Lakers were ignoring the pundits (see Charles Barkley and Chris Webber) who kept talking about their ill-fated defensive switches that so often left Gasol and Bynum on an island with the water bug known as Chris Paul. They liked their chances with Paul launching Sputnik jumpers over the outstretched arms of their big men, and were convinced that the key to stopping this fairy tale opponent was to stop gambling defensively and stay between the Hornets’ points guard and the rim.
They were right this time. Paul struggled to hit even the most open of looks from outside – let alone the contested ones. Alone in the left corner early in the fourth quarter for a shot that would’ve cut the deficit to five points: misfired. Alone atop the key moments later: off-target. Even Paul’s infamous gamesmanship – the edgy, clever ways in which he so often crawls under his opponent’s skin – were ineffective as the Lakers seemed to have caught their collective breath and realized why it was so vital to ignore his shenanigans.
He wasn’t bad by a long shot, finishing with 20 points on 8-of-20 shooting and 12 assists (although just four after the first quarter). But for the Hornets to shock the NBA world, he needed to be epic like he had been in the Game 1 and Game 4 wins. Such is life when you’re undermanned, and one of the few men who has shown an ability to be a worthy sidekick to Paul put his hero’s cape away this time as well.
Trevor Ariza, he of the purple-and-gold vendetta, had the sort of first quarter that surely had the locals wondering if this could, incredibly, be the last home game of coach Phil Jackson’s illustrious career. Ariza hit two three-pointers and scored twice going to the rim, his 4-of-4, 10-point start helping the Hornets lead 32-23. But the Hornets’ 13-of-16 shooting start did not last, as they hit just 20-of-51 in the final three quarters.
Ariza has not forgotten how the red carpet was pulled out from underneath him back in 2009, when his contributions to the Lakers’ title were not rewarded as he had hoped. He insists a free-agent offer never came his way, then took great exception to the idea that it was his greed that led him to sign with Houston. But he hit just four of his last 13 shots and finished with 22 points, with Jackson indicating afterward that the treatment of his former player will be markedly more physical the next time out.
“I think he feels comfortable out there,” he said. “We need to make him feel a little uncomfortable out on the floor.”
Bryant said he didn’t want the MRI because he considered it irrelevant. He would have played even if the ankle was broken, and he deemed it a “waste of time to go up there and do that and sit in the [Interstate] 405 traffic for two hours.”
He started slowly. His first shot attempt came more than four minutes into the second quarter before it became evident that he was back to his abnormal self.
“We all ain’t built the same way,” he said when asked about the quickest of recoveries. “It felt all right. Just the beauty of modern medicine.”