After so long watching the 'Black Mamba', is anybody surprised?
When the business end of the season comes along, Kobe Bryant can always be counted on for match-winning performances when it matters most. Last night was no exception. With the Lakers just half a game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the final Play off place in the Western Conference, it was critical that they continued their good form on the road against an inexperienced Portland side.
Thanks to Bryant, the Lakers were able to do just that.
The Lakers emerged from a close fought encounter with a vital 113-106 victory. Bryant was nothing short of sensational. His stat line was off the charts. 47 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks. What was more impressive though was that Bryant played all 48 minutes of the game, refusing to rest as he drove the Lakers past the winning post. Everybody watching Basketball over the last few years has been waiting for Bryant to slow down and for his considerable talent to fade as his age and minutes increased.
At 34 years of age, you could forgive Bryant for taking a back seat and letting the younger members of this Laker team grab the reigns. After all, this is a man who came straight to the NBA from Lower Merion High School and is a 17 year veteran. He has lodged more collective minutes than anybody over that period and it is remarkable that he is still playing at such a high level. It is a testament to Bryant's conditioning, his diet and his desire that he is able to accomplish this. He is renowned for his strong work ethic and is know for being the first in the gym and the last out of it. He has had his problems throughout his career, most notably his arrest for sexual assault in 2003 which caused severe damage to his image. Bryant overcame this adversity and made himself into a better person, something that most sports stars who fall foul of the law fail to do.
Bryant shows no signs of slowing down as he looks to drag the underachieving Lakers into the Play-offs, something that looked inconceivable at the halfway stage of the season. A lot was expected of this highly talented group of individuals at the start of the season and things have clearly not gone as smoothly as expected. A combination of injuries, lack of cohesion and terrible form had the Lakers some way off the pace. The second half of the season has been an improvement, although Bryant will be the first to tell you that they are nowhere near the finished article just yet. They are hanging onto the last play off spot for dear life, now a full game ahead of the Jazz with three games to play.
Bryant has played in all but two games for the Lakers this season and has been the one constant in a team riddled with injuries and a severe lack of consistency. He is averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6 assists in a staggering 38.5 minutes this year. He is also shooting 46 percent from the field which is extremely impressive considering how many shots Kobe seems to take when the game is on the line. He is one of the best closers the game has ever seen and the Lakers will need him to continue to be at his brilliant best if they are to make the Play-offs.
Bryant has freely admitted that he hasn't been the easiest teammate to be around during his career. He demands perfection from everybody. Whether it be a fellow superstar or the 12th man in the rotation. It matters not to Bryant. There was the famous falling out with Shaq that forced the Lakers front office to choose between the two and this year has been no different. Much has been made of the relationship between Bryant and Dwight Howard this season. Many in the media speculating that Bryant demanding persona doesn't sit well with Howard and this has been one of the main downfalls in the Lakers season. Bryant sees just how much potential Howard has and is only demanding because he knows what Howard is capable of. Howard himself has said he has no problem with Bryant's demeanour with him and there have been signs in recent weeks that the penny has finally dropped with Howard and this is encouraging for the Lakers going forward.
That's not to say Bryant has been doing it all on his own. The recent play of Pau Gasol has also contributed greatly to the Lakers turnaround. Gasol has suffered more than most with injuries throughout this season but recent games have suggested that he's put that behind him. 23 points, 7 rebounds and 9 assists last night against Portland confirmed Gasol's resurgence. He did most of his work in the post which is daunting for the rest of the league. With Howard now consistently gaining 20 points and 10 rebounds the Lakers now have one of the most potent post games in the league. This is just what they were expecting when they traded for Howard and should give either the Spurs or the Thunder plenty to think about if they Lakers make the post season.
Just how much damage the Lakers can do in the Play-offs remains to be seen. They are clearly still struggling on defense, a long time problem for any team coached by Mike D'Antoni which doesn't look like improving anytime soon. They should have dealt with Portland more convincingly than they actually did, with the Trail Blazers fielding four rookies in their starting line up. However, as the old saying goes 'A win is a win', and that's what counts for the Lakers now. Getting to the post season was the minimum requirement at the start of the season for this team and failing now will be a crushing blow.
Least of all to Bryant, who freely admits he hasn't got many more shots of getting his sixth ring and equalling the great Michael Jordan. That is what motivates him now, being recognised in the annals of history as one of the greatest players to ever pick up a basketball. Equalling Jordan's ring total will go a long way to achieving that.
They have three tricky looking games remaining without question. All against Play off teams but the good thing for the Lakers is that they are all at the Staples Centre. First up will be the Golden State Warriors, who have established themselves as one of the surprise packages in the Western Conference this year and are sure to give the Lakers a tough time. Next is the San Antonio Spurs, who could well be wrapping their stars up in cotton wool as they look to keep everyone fresh during the Play-offs. Finally it's the Houston Rockets, who have also clinched a Play off birth and have one of the League's most potent scorers in James Harden.
It should be an eventful end of the season for the Lakers. A fitting end to the most dramatic of seasons which wouldn't look out of place on any Hollywood screenplay. Whether the Lakers make the Play-offs or not, only time will tell.
With Kobe Bryant dragging them kicking and screaming, would you bet against them?
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_