The Los Angeles Lakers' struggles remain one of the biggest stories of the NBA season, but they are beginning to turn around that narrative. Heading into Sunday night's home game against the Atlanta Hawks, the Lakers had won four of their last five and 12 of their last 17, improving their record to 29-30. Another victory would put them at .500, a mark they hadn't hit Dec. 28, 2012.
Against the Hawks, longtime Lakers talisman Kobe Bryant ensured that they would not keep that losing record. In the last minutes of the game, Kobe took over, scoring the team's last six points to lock down a 99-98 victory.
The clear highlight is available for your viewing pleasure above. With roughly 2:20 left on the clock and the Lakers down 94-93, Bryant drove to his right past well-regarded Hawks defender Josh Smith. While most 34-year-old players would have laid the ball up, thereby allowing the quick-leaping Smith to block the shot, Kobe kept on elevating and exploded for the emphatic dunk. It was reminiscient of his younger days, back when he was regularly discussed as one of the two or three most athletic players in the NBA.
But Kobe wasn't finished. With 33 seconds left, he nailed two free throws to put the Lakers back on top 97-96. After an Al Horford dunk on the ensuing possession, the Lakers held the ball with 26 seconds remaining. After the jump, check out Kobe's game-winning bucket.
What's most impressive about this basket — and, really, about all six points he scored to close out the game — is that Kobe was able to get it by driving. Typically, NBA defenses do everything they can to close up the lane in the final minutes, forcing teams to take long jumpers. The only player who can consistently get shots near the rim late in games is LeBron James (plus Derrick Rose, when healthy).
Yet Kobe was able to do it thrice, getting two very difficult field goals and two well-earned free throws to give the Lakers a one-point lead on each occasion. It's hard to ask for more from a player, particularly one who's kept the Lakers in games even when they've been at their worst this season. At an age when most perimeter players are retired, Kobe is having his best offensive season — statistically, at least — in years. His only major mistake on Sunday was high-fiving Jeremy Piven to celebrate the win.
It's hard to imagine Kobe not getting recognition for what he's done, but the Lakers' renewed postseason relevance should bring him more widespread attention. At 30-30, the Lakers are within three games of the last three playoff spots in the West. With 22 games to play, that's not an insignificant gap to close, but it is very doable. Although the 2012-13 Lakers project won't be judged simply by their ability to make the postseason, there is reason to think they could cause trouble.
The Lakers still haven't integrated all their parts as hoped, and beating the fourth-best team in the East in the final seconds at home isn't exactly the mark of a contender. Nevertheless, there's always reason to fear a team with several players who can take over a game late. Kobe, as we know, is one of those guys.
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