With 8:48 remaining in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Lakers — the top-heavy titans who've spent the last four months miring in the muck of injuries, back-biting, coach-swapping, system-scrapping and, above all else, losing before scraping their way back to .500 just to get hammered back down by the new power — trailed the lowly New Orleans Hornets by 17 points. (This actually represented something of an improvement, considering the Lakers had been down as many as 25 late in the first half, because their continually porous defense allowed Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers, Greivis Vasquez, Al-Farouq Aminu and Roger Mason Jr. — or, as I call them, "The Fab Five" — to score 42 first-half points on 18 of 23 shooting.)
It seemed like the Lakers were on the way to their second straight loss, burning daylight in their attempt to catch the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz and slip into the Western Conference playoff bracket. Luckily for them, the Hornets entered Wednesday allowing the fourth-most points per possession in the NBA, and they employ Kobe Bryant.
Let's pick it up inside six minutes left, after a Jodie Meeks 3-pointer, a Robin Lopez dunk and a one-out-of-two trip to the foul line for Dwight Howard had New Orleans up 102-89:
That's right: 19 straight points, making it a 20-0 run with the Howard freebie and a 25-2 rip over the final 8:48 to close the game and score a stunning 108-102 comeback win over the shell-shocked Hornets.
In that fourth quarter, Bryant — still going predominantly with his left hand after injuring his right elbow on Tuesday night — scored 18 points on 7 for 8 shooting and dished four assists. Three of his dimes were for 3-pointers by Meeks, who went a deadeye 4 for 5 from deep in the frame to bolster the comeback effort; the other came on a drive that sucked three Hornets into penning him under the basket, leaving a wide-open Howard at the rim for a slam. The Lakers scored 33 points in the fourth quarter; 29 of them came as a direct result of Bryant's influence on the game. Forty-two points on 21 shots, 12 assists against six turnovers, seven rebounds in 42 minutes ... even that stat line doesn't necessarily do justice to the impact he had in securing a win that L.A. desperately needed to lock down.
The Hornets, for their part, scored nine. Nine points in 12 minutes. The backcourt of Vasquez and Eric Gordon was unable to do anything — no points 0 for 11 combined from the floor, 0 for 5 from 3-point range — and Lopez had an absolute nightmare on both ends of the court (1 for 6, one turnover, victimized by L.A.'s spread offense on switches and in the screen game, and unable to power past Howard with a chance to tie the game in the final minute) ... and that, to a large extent, was the direct result of Howard's influence on the game.
One night after being repeatedly roasted by the Oklahoma City Thunder's pick-and-roll offense, and one half watching the Hornets' generally dismal offense look like a world-beating unit while sitting on the bench in foul trouble, Howard did a comparatively masterful job of locking down the paint, contesting shots, deterring drives and generally looking like the sort of threatening presence he always used to be in Orlando, too rarely has been this year, and still can be for this Lakers. There's a reason you don't trade Dwight Howard for pennies on the dollar because he's hurt, upset and can't keep his mouth shut; it's because when he's not hurt, when he's on the hunt and just playing, he can be about as disruptive a force as there is in the game. Eight defensive rebounds and three blocks in the fourth quarter, and that doesn't really seem to accurately reflect the impact he had late.
That combination — Kobe out front, Dwight back behind — was what the Lakers were hoping to have all year, and while that clearly hasn't worked out quite so well, it did was it was supposed to last night, as Bryant told ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin:
"We really complemented each other extremely well and played to each other's strengths," Bryant said after finishing with 42 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds. "I directed us offensively tonight, and he did his thing defensively." [...]
"Just from watching on the bench, they were in the paint a lot. They were hitting 3s. They were just doing whatever they wanted," Howard said. "In the second half, I just tried to be a presence on the inside."
Howard internalized his goal for the game the same way Bryant set his mental goal at halftime.
"Honestly, I was thinking I need to bring my teammates along with me," Bryant said. "So I just kept telling myself at halftime, 'I got to bring them with me.' ... Because I was getting to the rim at the end of the first half and I knew I could score any time I wanted to, but I said, 'I got to bring them along with me.' I got to force the game upon them and hope that turns the tide."
It did on Wednesday, and the Lakers' leaders were rewarded for their late-stage effort when both the Rockets and Jazz lost, leaving Los Angeles just 1 1/2 game out of the No. 2 seed and just two games back of seventh with 21 games left.
Video via BasketInfos.