1. Kobe Does Major Restoration Work
LOS ANGELES -- It was exhilarating, a star delivering when his team and an antsy fan base needs it the most.
It was also sad, because it felt like hiring Michelangelo to paint a child's bedroom, and because these types of performances are beginning to feel finite instead of unlimited.
With the game and the Los Angeles Lakers' postseason lives very much in doubt, Kobe Bryant scored 23 points (including his team's first 14) in the fourth quarter to push the Lakers to a 104-96 victory. Against the New Orleans Hornets. The 27-51 Hornets. Thus allowing the Lakers (41-37) to grab a tenuous hold on the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoffs, .007 of a percentage point ahead the Utah Jazz (41-38). That's why it felt like a bit of a waste. This is supposed to be on display in June, not April.
It was Kobe as we've seen him so many times before. And Kobe as we won't see him much longer. I hadn't bought into the retirement talk that he freely dispenses these days, that he's only going to play through the final year of his contract next season, because he's still playing above so much of the league that I can't imagine him giving it up to go be average at something else. But something he said in a pregame interview on "NBA Coast to Coast" resonated with me throughout this night: "I've been playing for a long, long time. It's a matter, really, if I want to continue to do this, continue to sacrifice as much as I've been sacrificing to play at this level."
Why go through the offseason conditioning or the late-night ice tub treatments if the only reward is a victory against the Hornets? There's no glory in that, and Bryant is in it for the glory. Oh, there's still individual glory to be had. And it's difficult to comprehend him scaling so high on the all-time scoring list (aka Mount Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) only to turn around and return to the base camp without planting his flag at the peak. But he has learned the respect comes from winning (after all, Michael Jordan gives Bryant the nod over LeBron James by virtue of the ring tally) and if this season leaves Bryant as far from a championship as he's ever been, the thought of committing for the long would seem even more daunting.
He was exhausted after this game -- "too tired to tweet," he replied when asked what he'd have to say about it on social media. And the only prize was a flight to Portland for a game against the Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.
With the season, the one that began with the promise of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash restoring the Lakers to parade status, on the verge of becoming one of the grandest failures in sports history, Bryant reverted to what worked. He made it about him and Pau Gasol, the combination that made Bryant a champion again after the split with Shaquille O'Neal.
It didn't matter that Nash was out with a hamstring injury, and Howard was limited by foul trouble; Kobe probably wouldn't have involved them anyway. Like a mischievous schoolkid enticing his friends to ditch class, Kobe convinced Gasol to abandon Mike D'Antoni's offense and head down to the low block. That's where he kept going to Gasol -- three straight times down the floor during one third-quarter stretch.
Gasol responded with a 22-point, 11-rebound, four-assist game.
Bryant called it "2010 Pau."
Oh, but this was very much the 2013 Bryant.
There were no Forum flashback moments, such as his soaring, game-clinching dunk against Atlanta's Josh Smith. This was all angles and up-fakes. It was Kobe calling on his 17 seasons in the league to win on savvy, not athleticism. Get the ball, square up, jab, ball fake, fallaway jumper over Xavier Henry. Steal the ball from Eric Gordon, run alongside him like a hockey player shielding the puck on his way down the ice, then make a layup.
He went from scoring seven points through three quarters to 30 for the game.
"I was just trying to pace myself," Bryant said. "I know fatigue comes in when you play so many minutes. I really just tried to lay back and manage the game and turn it on at the right time."
This had to be more enjoyable to watch than for him to endure. If you appreciate the adaptations Bryant has made to remain competitive in a league that grows younger by the day, this game was outstanding. He created shots for Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks, but they missed a combined nine of 10 3-pointers. He tried to get the ball to Dwight Howard, but that seemed to result in the bulk of Bryant's five turnovers. Bryant clearly felt most comfortable going to Gasol.
All season long, the most efficient combination of the four biggest Lakers stars has been Bryant and Gasol -- without Nash and Howard. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Bryant-Gasol duo is plus 18.8 points per 48 minutes, almost double the second-best combo of Bryant, Howard and Nash.
"Obviously, we have a lot of weapons and we have different players that can also do very good things for us," Gasol said. "But I think [Kobe and I] know each other so well, we've played through so much together that we understand each other."
They also understand the stakes. They're uncorking the best wine and bringing out the good silverware even if the NBA schedule says this should be the time for an afternoon snack.
2. Around the Association
Most valuable player: Pau Gasol had a vintage night with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Kobe Bryant took a while to get going, and the big Spaniard kept the Lakers in the game while Bean struggled and Dwight Howard was in foul trouble.
X factor: Kobe exploded in the fourth quarter. Pau kept the Lakers in the game for three quarters and Kobe closed it out with 23 fourth-quarter points, including a 7-0 run to start the final period.
That was strange: Only 12 days after having surgery to repair a surgically torn meniscus, Metta World Peace was able to come off the bench and log 15 minutes. His presence was able to give Kobe a breather earlier than the last few minutes of the game.
MVP: Kevin Durant (21 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists). Has there ever been a dominant star so able to quietly and brilliantly fill in the gaps while his teammates put on a show?
Defining moment: With the Jazz down six and desperate to make a play, Russell Westbrook (25 points, five rebounds, three steals) jumped in front of the pass and finished a showcase dunk for the dagger.
That was disappointing. Fans were clearly hoping for a better showing from the home team, considering the stakes. Rather than a playoff push, the Jazz and Lakers are playing hot potato for the final spot in the West.
MVP: The Knicks' records just keep falling. Carmelo Anthony tied newly minted Hall of Famer Bernard King's streak of consecutive 35-point games. He shredded the Wizards in the third quarter, scoring 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting and adding eight rebounds and six dimes to boot.
Defining moment: Speaking of records, the Knicks also tied a franchise mark with 20 treys. Nine of them came in the first quarter, when they notched 27 of their 36 points from downtown versus a Wizards squad that was fifth best at defending the three coming into the game.
That was No. 13: The lucky 13th triumph in a row gave New York 51 wins -- its highest total in 16 seasons -- and its first Atlantic Division Crown since 1994, when Kurt Thomas was a junior at TCU. Needless to say, it's been a while.
MVP: While none of his teammates could hit an open three-pointer if their life depended on it, LeBron James scored nine points in the third quarter, stretching Miami's one-point halftime lead to double digits. He finished with 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting, with seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals and one block.
Defining moment: Early in the first quarter, LeBron James found himself running a two-on-one fast break. After leaving his feet to feed Mike Miller for an easy layup, Monta Ellis leapt into James' passing lane. No worries. Without skipping a beat, the three-time MVP simply tossed the ball off the backboard, caught it, then threw down a ferocious dunk.
That was unfair: The Heat did not have Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, missed 15 straight 3-pointers, yet still waltzed to a double-digit victory against a possible first-round opponent.
MVP: James Harden leads the Rockets in scoring, and he did so again Tuesday night. When push came to shove, Harden came through for his team yet again with a massive 33 points on 21 shots and six assists, not to mention a game-winning (goaltended) shot.
X factor: Patrick Beverley took off in the second half, with steals, blocks, slams and assists galore. He almost single-handedly ended a pair of Suns runs.
Defining moment: That goaltending call to end the game was one of the most unexpected moments in an unexpected season for both teams. That's not what anyone saw coming, but it was the right call.
MVP: Klay Thompson had 30 points, but began the game 9-for-9, which single-handedly kept GSW in the game. However, he ended on a 1-for-10 streak. Luckily, during that cold stretch he ratcheted up his defensive intensity en route to five steals.
Defining moment: It probably wasn't a smart decision for Luke Ridnour to get in Thompson's face. Golden State ended the third on a 23-10 run after this incident, punctuated by a Harrison Barnes alley-oop and fueled by the fans seeing the playoffs in sight.
That was quirky: Recently, the Dubs have been trying to use Klay Thompson in the post. Forty percent of his post-ups have come in the Warriors past two games, per Synergy. On Tuesday, he bullied Minnesota's small shooting guard rotation down low.
MVP: George Hill. He was the lone Pacer who showed any urgency as the Cavaliers started to pull away. And after starting the fourth quarter down 20, it was his three-point play in transition that gave Indiana a one-point lead with 46 seconds to play.
X-Factor: Jeff Pendergraph. The seldom-used forward played eight minutes in the fourth, and his pick-and-roll defense stalled the Cavaliers' attack enough for the Pacers to come back. The charge he drew on a would-be three-point play by Kyrie Irving was the game's biggest moment.
That was ... strange. Cleveland trailed 20-8 then outscored the Pacers 76-44 before losing the fourth quarter 35-10. They say basketball is a game of runs, but this was ridiculous.
3. Tuesday's Best
Carmelo Anthony, Knicks:
In clinching their first Atlantic Division title since 1994, Melo paced a 3-point spree that saw the team sink 20 of 36 in a rout of the Wizards. Melo recorded 36 points, eight rebounds and six assists as the Knicks won their 13th straight game.
4. Tuesday's Worst
Jermaine O'Neal, Suns: He goaltended James Harden's final shot, allowing the Rockets to win 101-98 and clinch a playoff berth. Who goaltends a 3-point shot? On the bright side, each Suns loss increases the odds of Nerlens Noel coming to town. See Chad Ford's Mock Draft for the latest odds.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote of the Night
"I'm trying to get to the postseason where we can start the f--- over."
-- Kobe Bryant, after his team moved into eighth place in the Western Conference standings.
8. That's What He's Talking About
9. Stat Check
The New York Knicks made 20 of 36 3-point field-goal attempts in a 120-99 victory over the Washington Wizards. It was the fourth game in the past three seasons in which New York scored at least half its points from downtown, the most such games in the NBA during that time. The only other teams with at least two are Orlando (3) and Houston (2).
10. Dunk Of The Night
Around the Association
Most valuable player: Mike Conley notched in his fifth straight game scoring 20 points or more while adding seven assists and two steals. With Jerryd Bayless sidelined, Conley was a key cog in the late run sparked by the Grizzlies' bench.
X factor: The Grizzlies' bench stymied the Bobcats' hopes with an 18-0 run that started the fourth quarter. They outscored the Bobcats' bench 39-26, including a season-high 11 points from forward Jon Leuer.
That was a grind: With just five minutes to go in the third quarter, neither team had nailed a triple. The Grizzlies and Bobcats would combine to shoot 68 percent from the free throw line, 19 percent from beyond the arc and 42 percent from the field.
Most valuable player: It's hard to give MVP to a player on the losing team, but this wouldn't have been close without Jimmy Butler. He went 10-for-12 from the field and had a game-high 28 points to go with seven boards and two steals. Honorable mention goes to DeMar DeRozan (20 points).
Least valuable player: With a quick glance at Nate Robinson's line, it doesn't look so bad. But 22 points on 22 shots is bad, especially when he has a teammate that shot 83 percent from the field.
Defining moment: Everyone likes to talk about "clutch" time as being the most important, but the Raptors showed that the points in the first quarter count just the same. Toronto took an 18-3 lead, and the Bulls could never shake that awful start.
MVP: In three quarters, the incredible Reggie Evans scored 17 points to go along with 24 rebounds. It's difficult to describe the work Evans does on the glass without resorting to hyperbole, but here goes: it's entirely possible that he rebounds the basketball better than anyone in the game does anything. Well, I tried.
X factor: While Evans will get the headlines, Brook Lopez was no slouch either. The center sat the fourth, but still finished with a cool 29/11/3 line in just 26 minutes. He and Evans combined for 46 points and 35 rebounds.
That was plain mean-spirited: The Nets didn't bully the 76ers inside on Tuesday as much as they bludgeoned and humiliated them. Brooklyn outrebounded Philadelphia 67-34, outscored them in the paint 58-30, and dominated the visitor in second-chance points.