Thursday, February 24, 2011
Mamba turns into Hulk
By Arash Markazi
PORTLAND -- Kobe Bryant calls himself the Black Mamba, but he sounded more like the Incredible Hulk as he stood alone in the visiting locker room of the Rose Garden on Wednesday night.
"I wasn't frustrated, I was pissed off -- there's a difference," Bryant said. "When I get pissed off, you don't want me mad. That's Hulk type stuff. A combination of non-calls and them feeling like they were doing a good job on me defensively pissed me off."
Bryant's metamorphosis from Kobe to the Hulk took place in the third quarter as Blazers guard Wesley Matthews began getting physical with him without being called for a foul on a couple of possessions that nearly caused Bryant to receive a technical.
As Bryant's pleas to the referees fell on deaf ears, he began to make his famous "Kobe Face" following a couple of made shots. He stuck out his lower jaw, flared his nostrils and stared at his opponent as if to say, "Mr. Matthews, don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
Bryant's back-to-back fadeaways at the end of regulation sent the game into overtime, and he scored the last eight points in the extra period to give the Lakers a 106-101 win that was probably their most satisfying victory of the season.
"I think so," Bryant said when asked if the win was the biggest of the season. "It's the toughest one for sure. It's a win that we needed. This was a truly a playoff type of test because of the crowd and things weren't going our way and being down seven with three minutes to go. It was a playoff type of game."
As much as Bryant was the focal point of the offense in the second half, he understood the team needed Pau Gasol to be the focal point in overtime if they were going to win the game. Gasol, who was in foul trouble for much of the second half, had only four points after halftime and was scoreless in the fourth quarter.
"One of the points I made to him at the end of [regulation] was that they're going to expect me to initiate the offense," Bryant said. "That's what Portland's thinking, so I said, 'Pau, we need you to take this game over right now. This is what you're here for. It's me and you. So we're going to go into you, you go to work and do what you do best and bring us home,' and he did that."
Gasol scored five points early in the overtime period to give the Lakers a lead they wouldn't relinquish before eventually fouling out and letting Bryant finish the job. The win was only the Lakers' second in Portland in their past 12 tries, but the first with Bryant on the court since Feb. 23, 2005. The Lakers beat Portland at the Rose Garden last season when Bryant was out with an injury.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson joked about the Lakers' last win in Portland sans Bryant before the game. "We played without Kobe and we ran our offense that night, if I remember correctly," Jackson said.
As much as Bryant wanted to downplay the significance of the win from a personal standpoint, saying, "We won the last time we were here," and following it up with, "I was still here," when he was reminded he didn't play in the game, he finally gave in.
"You obviously want to end [the streak]," Bryant said. "The competitiveness of the game, the physicality of the game, it felt like a playoff atmosphere. We cranked it up a notch. We learned a lot today."
The one constant for the Lakers over the past 18 years has been their ineptitude in Portland. The Rose Garden has served as the Lakers' theatre of nightmares since it was opened in 1995. The Lakers had lost 15 out of their past 18 games in Portland heading into Wednesday night and had won only a single season series against the Blazers since the Rose Garden opened.
Of course, in a city as mysterious as this to the Lakers, their saving grace would be the equally mysterious and always mercurial Ron Artest, who scored 24 points and hit 5-of-6 3-pointers. It was Artest's best game of the season and the second straight game he has been engaged in the offense after the All-Star break.
"That's one of the better games he's played," Jackson said. "He's shooting the ball better. The reality is, he made some good shots, some good things happened for him out there, and he got confident and comfortable."
Artest has looked completely lost and disinterested at times this season, but is also equally apathetic about discussing his difficulty with anyone who wants to tell him he isn't himself. Even after his best game of the season, Artest acted as if it was no different than one of his many subpar games this year.
"I always feel comfortable," Artest said. "I always feel confident. I always feel good. Just because you play bad one game, you can't blame it on anything. You have to feel the same way. Eat the same breakfast every morning, you can't change that much."
While Artest wants to pretend he hasn't changed that much, it is apparent that he and the Lakers are not the same team that lost three games heading into the All-Star break.
"I think we're more purposeful as we play," Jackson said. "I think we have a better idea of what we want to get accomplished. Guys are not just shooting the ball, they're playing together."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.