The Los Angeles Lakers are fighting to grab the West's last spot in the playoffs and rescue their season from utter disaster. After Kobe Bryant's fourth-quarter heroics in Tuesday night's win over the New Orleans Hornets, the Lakers were faced with a road game against the Portland Trail Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back. A win would push them a game ahead of the Utah Jazz — a loss would drop them back into a tie for eighth place (which means missing out on the playoffs, because the Jazz hold the tiebreaker advantage). That's a stiff challenge for an aging team, particularly given the heavy minutes logged by Bryant and others in this final push towards the postseason.
In true Kobe fashion, the Lakers star simply pushed himself farther and took on an even bigger burden to lift his team to a 113-106 win. Playing the full 48 minutes, Bryant scored a season-high 47 points on 14 of 27 shooting from the floor and a perfect 18 of 18 mark from the free-throw line. In addition to setting a new personal high for 2012-13, Kobe set the all-time record for an opponent at the Rose Garden, topping a 44-point performance in January 2011 by LeBron James.
Bryant also added eight rebounds, five assists (against a single turnover), four blocks, and three steals to fill out the stat sheet. It's hard to imagine anyone other than LeBron himself doing more to help his team win, and Kobe just happens to be a 34-year-old playing a position at which players typically don't age gracefully.
It was the kind of performance that justifies Bryant's near-saintly reputation among Lakers fans. While Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol combined for 43 points on 20 of 26 shooting for a more balanced attack, this game belonged to Kobe. He dominated possessions, focused on looking for his own shot, and took it upon himself to win the Lakers the game. It was a classic, memorable performance.
It was also hard to watch it without acknowledging the underlying premise of this Lakers' roster. When Mitch Kupchak added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the summer, he did so to lessen the burden placed on Kobe, particularly during the regular season. Yet Nash has struggled to stay healthy — he missed his fifth consecutive game on Wednesday night — and Howard has never looked fully healthy, creating a situation in which Bryant has taken on a bigger role than he has in several seasons just to get the Lakers into the playoffs. He was the key player in this win by a wide margin, but it might not be a coincidence that the Lakers finally pulled away in the final minutes on two improbable offensive rebounds by point guard Steve Blake and two alley-oops from Gasol to Howard. They need contributions from other players to succeed.
Even with all the star power on hand, the 2012-13 Lakers occasionally look like a variation on the 2006-07 team, a seven-seed so limited that Kobe requested a trade shortly after their elimination from the playoffs. They're a different team, obviously, and the Lakers still have the talent to contend in a best case scenario. It's just that a narrow win over a team riding a nine-game losing streak wasn't supposed to be a cause for celebration with this Lakers squad.
Kobe's performances are still thrilling, and his contributions to will the Lakers into the postseason demand praise even if he proves unsuccessful. Yet, from a different perspective, the circumstances of these wins drive home just how much of a disappointment this Lakers season has been.