When Kobe Bryant suits up for the Los Angeles Lakers, there is very little doubt as to which player will dominate the ball and take big shots in crunch time. For many years, Kobe has simplified every late-game decision, accruing so many game-winning baskets that his reputation outstrips his observable effectiveness.
With Kobe still recovering from his torn Achilles tendon, the Lakers will have to depend on other players in these moments. On Thursday night against the Houston Rockets, that responsibility fell to guard Steve Blake. With 3.4 seconds on the clock and the Lakers down 98-96, Blake curled off a screen towards the left wing to take the inbounds pass from Jodie Meeks. A wide-open Blake rose up in time to beat the closing Dwight Howard and drained the three-pointer to give L.A. a one-point lead with 1.3 seconds on the clock. Patrick Beverly's desperation heave off his own deflected inbounds pass failed to find the bottom of the net, and the Lakers escaped Houston with a 99-96 win to run their record to 3-3.
Blake finished with 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc.
In a game billed as Howard's first game against the former team he spurned in free agency this summer — albeit with the presence of Kobe, his presumed chief antagonist — the Lakers jumped off to an early lead with a 36-19 first quarter that included six three-pointers (on their way to 16-of-35 shooting on the night). The Rockets fought their way back by slowing down the pace considerably and captured the lead at the 3:51 mark of the fourth quarter, but several missed free-throws from Howard (4-of-8 after the Rockets took the lead) gave the Lakers a chance to win. Lakers fans could take heart in knowing that the same Smite-a-Dwight tactics that frustrated Howard so much during his lone season with the franchise hindered the Rockets in this game, as well.
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The second half of this game was not especially pretty, and the possession immediately proceeding Blake's game-winner gave the impression that Mike D'Antoni had dictated his play in an exaggerated version of his own West Virginia drawl. However, this Lakers team — even with Bryant — is likely going to have to win ugly often this season, particularly when Pau Gasol and Steve Nash combine for 4-of-21 shooting from the field. No matter who takes the final shot, the Lakers have to abide by different expectations this season.
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