JOHN IRELAND BLOG  |  ESPN Los Angeles

Once again, Kobe has all the answers

February 24, 2010, 1:09 AM

By: John Ireland

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Several questions surrounded Kobe Bryant's return to the Lakers on Tuesday night.

Would Bryant ease back into the lineup after missing the previous five games? Would he pick up where he left off in Memphis three weeks ago, when he torched the Grizzlies for 44 points? Would he play normal minutes? How would the ankle hold up? How would Bryant and the rest of the Lakers adjust to his return?

Bryant answered all those questions with one shot when he buried a 3-pointer with 4.3 seconds left to lift the Lakers to a 99-98 win over the Grizzlies.

"He's lucky," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said with a smirk. "Very, very lucky. Shots go in."

Said Bryant: "I just wanted to get a good look."

Jackson had a plan before the game.

"We were upside down last time we played here," Jackson said of the Feb. 1 loss. "Kobe had 44 points against [O.J.] Mayo, and it wasn't enough. He may start slow tonight, and we might attack from the inside out."

Jackson's plan didn't exactly play out.

After the first quarter, Bryant led the Lakers in minutes (12), points (nine), and assists (three). He also had five rebounds. But what really stood out is that he keyed an L.A. defense that held Memphis to only 16 first-quarter points. The Lakers led the Grizzlies in points off of turnovers, 14-0. Kobe had one of the Lakers' five steals, and had a spring in his step that answered at least one of those multiple questions: His ankle was just fine.

But the fast start didn't hold up.

After L.A. led 53-48 at halftime, the Grizzlies caught and passed the Lakers with a 15-3 run early in the third quarter. Pau Gasol, playing in the city that gave him his NBA start -- and against his younger brother Marc  missed several easy shots. Gasol, a 52 percent shooter coming into the game, started by making only six of his first 15 shots -- he finished eight for 18 with 22 points. Jackson pointed out beforehand Gasol might struggle coming back to Memphis.

"I think it has affected him," Jackson said. "Maybe it's playing against his brother. He just hasn't played as well here. He isn't his normal self against Memphis."

But more than any one player, it was the Lakers' team defense that broke down. After the 16-point first quarter, the Grizzlies scored 32 in the second quarter, and 33 in the third to take an 81-76 lead after three. That left the game up for grabs in the fourth quarter, which is where Kobe earns his money.

Bryant re-entered with 7:59 left and the Lakers trailing 87-82. He made his first shot at the 5:14 mark, to cut the Memphis lead to 91-89. At the 2:20 mark, his made his second one to make it 95-92. With 56 seconds to go, he buried a three-pointer to tie the score at 96-96. And with 4.3 seconds to play, he hit the three-pointer to win it.

"I spend time and time again [in the offseason] shooting thousands of shots," Bryant said. "Then [at the end of the game] I just need to make one."

Said Jackson: "The option is for the shooter, and he took the shot which is great."

Bryant's fourth-quarter totals: 11 points on four-for-six shooting, including two from two on 3-point attempts.

And that's why the Lakers missed him. He gives the team a chance to win any close game, no matter what the circumstances.

For the game, Bryant finished with 32 points, on 13-for-19 shooting, in 40 minutes.

Any more questions?

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