Kobe Bryant saves the day in the final quarter, scores 23 in the 4th as Lakers beat Hornets (Video)

A home game against the lowly New Orleans Hornets shouldn’t come down to needing Kobe Bryant to score 23 fourth-quarter points in order to secure a close win, but this is where the Los Angeles Lakers are right now. Near the end of a massively disappointing season that started with championship ambitions, the limping and often listless Lakers got behind Kobe’s huge final frame in order to eke out a win and move a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz for a playoff spot on Tuesday.

That’s correct. A half-game over the Jazz for the final spot in the West … and it’s the second week in April.

(And Utah owns the tiebreaker if both teams finish with the same record.)

For Tuesday, though, with the Jazz falling in Oklahoma City earlier in the evening and Kobe doing damage, all was right. Watch the highlights:

In 41 minutes (a restful night for the Kobester, considering his rough recent history), Bryant put up 30 points on only 18 shots, with six assists, and six rebounds. There were five turnovers, but also a much-needed five steals. Three of those steals came in the fourth, when Kobe made 8 of 9 free throws and shot 7 of 11 from the field. Three rebounds and just one turnover in the final 12 minutes for Bryant, as Los Angeles outscored New Orleans 34-26 in the period.

Following the contest, in talking with the scrum (as brought to us by Beth Harris of the Associated Press), Kobe simplified his fourth-quarter scouting report while referring to his supposedly lacking teammates:

"If you're making shots, I can sit back," Bryant said. "If you're playing (bad), I can't."

No Laker but Bryant made a shot in the first seven minutes of the fourth. He had just four points at halftime.

"It is really just about me making shots. It is not really the defense," said Bryant, who had ice on his left shoulder and both knees after the game. "They keyed in on my penetration, but I know I could range over the defense and get the shot. So, with games like this, when the jumper is falling, you have fourth quarters like I had."

Shockingly, I somewhat disagree with this take, Kobe.

Dwight Howard played just 3 1/2 minutes in the fourth quarter because of foul trouble, and made both his attempts from the field in the quarter. Pau Gasol entered the fourth as the Lakers’ leading scorer with 20 points, and was given just one shot in the fourth (missing it) on his way to 22 total points (2 for 2 at the line). Antawn Jamison made both of his looks from the field in the fourth quarter, while Steve Blake and Earl Clark combined to miss all three of their looks. All Lakers not named “Kobe Bryant” combined to make four of eight attempts from the field in the final 12 minutes.

It wasn’t that Kobe’s teammates were missing shots in the fourth quarter. It’s that Kobe was taking all the shots in the fourth quarter.

(And this is coming off of a third quarter that saw the Lakers not named “Kobe Bryant” shoot 10 for 16 from the field.)

The Lakers needed Bryant to go off in that fourth quarter. But there’s nothing in the buildup to that final period that suggests that a well-balanced offense featuring a few more attempts from Bryant (who entered the fourth with only seven points, shooting 2 for 6 from the field in the first three quarters) and continued movement featuring Gasol and Jamison wouldn’t have produced the same result. It was completely necessary for Kobe to ramp up his aggressiveness on both ends, but the next time the Lakers enter the fourth quarter in a tie ballgame, it can’t completely be the Kobe Bryant Show.

That’s the worrying thing, as the Lakers head into their final four games of the season. If the Lakers and Bryant think that hero ball is the answer, they may be in trouble.

With games against the Wesley Matthews-less Portland Trail Blazers (even on the second night of a back-to-back), the iffy backcourt defenses of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, and the possibly resting San Antonio Spurs coming up, it’s conceivable that the Lakers could still make the playoffs with Kobe firing away late. But it also reminds of the 1995 Chicago Bulls, a team that alternated from being “Michael’s team” and a “team-team” during stretches of games late in the regular season, something that ultimately caught up to them in the playoffs. Because they were given the proverbial fish by the lure of MJ’s individual greatness, and never learned to fish as a team.

Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest to ever play this sport, and he saved Los Angeles’ bacon (and season) on Tuesday night. Even the most ardent Kobe-backer will have to agree that the Lakers need a better mix of Kobe’s brilliance and his teammates’ all-around play in the fourth quarter if they want to make it into the postseason with relative ease, and have a fighting chance against either the Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.

It can’t always come down to Kobe Bryant dropping 23 points in the fourth. Though it was pretty damn cool to watch on Tuesday.

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