Thursday, December 9, 2010
Closers (even Kobe) need a night off
By Dave McMenamin ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant has likened his ability to close out a basketball game to New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera's lights-out, late-game baseball heroics on more than one occasion.
On Wednesday, Bryant was peering down on the Clippers -- an energetic group of young sluggers who haven't quite figured out that sometimes it's better to be a contact hitter than to swing for the fences every at-bat -- from the mound in the closing minutes.
He picked up strike one on a difficult stop-and-rise floater in the lane with 46.9 seconds left in the fourth quarter to cut the Clippers' lead to one.
He picked up strike two with an even more impressive delivery as he pulled up from 19 feet out with 22.8 seconds left and rattled home a jumper to put the Lakers up by one.
Derek Fisher has his share of game-ending heroics in his 15 NBA seasons.
It looked as though he had strike three with 3.1 seconds left as he took Eric Gordon to the elbow, bumped Gordon off balance with his backside, then spun around to unleash a perfect swish. But the Clippers had a foul to give, so Gordon hacked him on the floor before Bryant started his shooting motion; the equivalent of a batter stepping out of the box to call timeout right before a pitcher smokes a strike right across the plate.
The Lakers got the ball out of bounds and called timeout. When play resumed, Bryant assumed the ball would be back in his glove. Only it wasn't.
Matt Barnes passed the ball to Derek Fisher, a downright Dennis Eckersleyan player in his own right, and Fish drove to his left and lofted a buzzer-beating layup high off the glass and through the net to win the game.
Strike three. Final out. Game over. Lakers win 87-86.
When Fisher caught Barnes' pass, Bryant held out his arms looking for the ball. When Fisher put the ball on the floor, Bryant slapped his hands together in frustration. As Fisher's shot was soaring through the air, Bryant's shoulders were slumping as he slowly backpedaled away from the play.
The body language spoke volumes.
It wasn't that Bryant didn't think Fisher could finish the play. He's seen his co-captain save many a game in the 15 seasons since they came into the league together as rookies. The shot was almost a carbon copy of the one Fish hit in Game 3 of the Finals in Boston last season, only instead of Kevin Garnett's outstretched arms as the final obstacle; it was DeAndre Jordan providing the D. "I think had his fingernails been longer, he probably would have got to it," Fisher said.
But in that split second, Bryant's focus was on Kobe Bryant missing the chance to secure the strikeout rather than Fisher filling in as the closer and the team picking up the final out by any means possible.
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The brief display of disappointment from Bryant is understandable -- he's a fierce competitor wanting to finish off an opponent -- and it won't harm the brotherly relationship he shares with Fisher. But it showed some of the slight cracks in the Lakers' armor of late, cracks Fisher spoke to in the postgame locker room.
Just as clutch as Fisher's shot was his timely speech given to the team in the locker room after the game. As L.A. prepared to embark on a six-game road trip Thursday -- the kind of extended array of away games that galvanized the team two seasons ago and tested the team's resolve last season -- Fisher wanted to remind all 14 other players wearing purple and gold that winning as a team is more important than simply winning.
"We have five, six guys that are brand-new on this ballclub, and they have to understand the experience and the way to play together," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "There's a certain tensile energy that goes between all these players, a connective tissue that makes them react the way they do, and we're not playing with that right now. There's something we're not really picking each other up in that kind of a way, and [Fisher] wanted to address that, and I thought it was a good deal."
Rebounding from that four-game losing streak by ripping off three wins in a row is not enough. Winning the proper way is what you strive for.
"It's not just effort in terms of trying hard," Fisher said. "It's just realizing we have a responsibility to each other to try to play the game a certain way. We have to put each other in a position to be successful. We can't just go out and play with five guys on the court if it's not really a connected, united team."
As much as Bryant's body language goes against what the Lakers are trying to build in their three-peat quest, his chest bump and warm hug with Shannon Brown after Brown swished a shot from 57 feet out to end the third quarter was exactly the type of gesture that engenders trust and admiration among teammates.
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"Shannon Brown's shot provided us at the end of the third quarter with kind of an energy boost that we needed," Jackson said. "We were kind of lagging. Pau [Gasol] had his head down running tonight. Lamar [Odom] looked like he was disconcerted out there and frustrated. It just kind of picked us up."
The energy from Brown's moon shot was still flowing through the team long after the final buzzer. As Brown was answering questions to reporters, Luke Walton emerged from the players lounge having just seen the replay of Brown's well-beyond half-court heave on TV. Walton held his arm up in the air in triumph as he walked through the locker room just as Brown had done after releasing the shot, knowing it was good before it fell through the hoop.
"Shannon, you called that !" Walton called out, amazed by his teammate.
Brown's face lit up brighter than the 54-foot-high, LED-light-laced Christmas tree in L.A. Live.
New connective tissue was weaved.
Moments like that can remind Bryant and the team that when Rivera throws the clinching out to win the World Series, he doesn't win a ring just by himself.
The setup man gets one, too.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.