At times Kobe Bryant seems indestructible. He has played 82 games in three of the last four full NBA seasons, consistently playing through injuries that would sideline almost anyone else. Knee trouble, a torn ligament in his finger, concussions, broken noses -- seemingly nothing forces him to the sideline. So when Kobe shut it down five games ago, you know he was really hurting. Coming as it did as the Los Angeles Lakers fought to retain the lead in the Pacific Division and the third seed in the Western Conference, with both the Clippers and the Grizzlies closing fast, the timing seemed like it could not have been worse.
But after a couple of shaky Kobe-less games in which they were blown out by the Suns and needed a late comeback against the Hornets, the Lakers have settled into a very good groove. Sunday afternoon they won for the fourth straight time without the NBA's leading scorer, defeating the Dallas Mavericks in overtime, 112-108.
A casual fan tuning into the first half might have been a bit disappointed in the proceedings. If you were watching to see the big name stars dominate, this was not your half. Obviously Kobe wasn't playing at all. In his absence, Andrew Bynum was 1-7 in the first quarter, and 4-17 through three. Pau Gasol was 1-4 at halftime. For the Mavs, Dirk Nowitzki missed his first seven shots and finished the first half 2-10.
Nowitzki may have been cold, but the rest of the Mavericks were red hot. Dallas shot 55 percent in the first half and took a six point lead into the locker room. But the Lakers chipped away at the deficit to take a one point lead into the fourth quarter.
The Mavericks used a 10-1 run early in the fourth to build a six-point edge, but Bynum and Ramon Sessions combined to score 14 of the Lakers next 16 points to put L.A. back on top. Jason Terry tied the game at 98 with just under a minute remaining in regulation and each team missed their last two chances to regain the lead, forcing overtime.
The overtime started off in dramatic fashion, as the teams traded four straight three pointers early in the period. After the Lakers finally got a stop, Metta World Peace hit a jumper to give them a four point lead with just over a minute left, the first two possession lead for either team in the overtime. Dallas got two Nowitzki free throws and then forced the stop they needed -- but Jason Terry missed a layup that would have tied the game with five seconds left when he got too far under the basket, and that was the ball game.
Without Bryant, several different Lakers have stepped up. Bynum has been a beast, but that is to be expected. Against the Spurs, World Peace turned back the clock with a season-high in points. Against Denver, Matt Barnes made every big play and scored the big buckets down the stretch. Sunday it was Sessions hitting the big shots. Assuming they can re-assimilate Bryant into the lineup when he returns, the Lakers are looking like a much stronger team heading into the playoffs because of the way these other players have stepped up without him.
Bynum finished with 23 points and 16 rebounds. For the game he was just 9-24, but he was 5-7 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Sessions finished with 22, and World Peace added 18. Gasol finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and hit huge back-to-back three pointers in the fourth quarter.
The Mavs were led by Nowitzki with 24 points and 14 rebounds, but he was just 9-28 from the field. Terry finished with 21 and Delonte West added 20.
With the win, the Lakers moved a game and a half ahead of the Clippers for third in the West. The Mavericks drop to 34-27, which places them in sixth; they are now tied with seventh place Denver in the loss column. If the standings remain as they are, the Lakers and Mavs would meet in the first round of the playoffs -- but presumably Kobe Bryant would be playing in those games, which doesn't bode well for the defending champs.
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