In what has almost become a weekly occurrence, Bryant put together a highlight-laden late-game performance en route to yet another stunning final line. Every one of his 42 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds mattered Wednesday night, as the Lakers outscored the New Orleans Hornets 33-9 in the final period to steal a 108-102 victory.
No. 24 was clearly on a mission down the stretch, scoring or assisting on 29 of the Lakers' 33 fourth-quarter points. That's not a typo.
And while his fourth-quarter dominance was something to behold, Bryant actually started his run just after halftime:
Perhaps more important (and less predictable) than Bryant's otherworldly performance was the way the Lakers rallied together during their late run. Dave McMenamin of ESPN commented on a somewhat surprising sight that may very well have been as good of a sign for L.A.'s future as Bryant's big night:
Was impressive to see Pau constantly pumping up Dwight during fourth quarter timeouts— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) March 7, 2013
If a win like this helps turn the Lakers—who after 62 games still feel like a collection of individuals—into a team, it might be worth the headache. And hey, maybe Pau Gasol's encouragement really worked. According to Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell, Mike D'Antoni said Howard had a heck of a lot to do with holding the Hornets to just nine points in the final period.
Mike D'Antoni gave Howard credit for almost single-handedly shutting down NOH's pick and roll in the 4th Q.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) March 7, 2013
Is Gasol the "Dwight Whisperer"?
Implausible chemistry creation aside, the bottom line is this: A loss in this game would have all but snuffed out the Lakers' flickering playoff hopes. With 20 games remaining on the schedule, L.A. can't afford to drop games to non-playoff teams, which is precisely what the Hornets are. And simplifying the analysis even further, L.A. can hardly afford to lose games the rest of the way, no matter who they play.
ESPN's Arash Markezi certainly subscribes to the theory of that notion, arguing that ugly wins count, too:
Forget about "quality" wins. A win is a win at this point. Even if you have to comeback from 25 down to beat the 21-41 Hornets. #JustWinBaby— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) March 7, 2013
That sentiment stands in stark contrast to the optimism that abounded earlier this year.
When this version of the Lakers was assembled, hopes couldn't have been any higher. Fans and pundits around the league did everything but schedule a day off to attend L.A.'s championship parade in June. But as everyone now knows, things haven't quite worked out as planned.
The defense has been spotty, chemistry problems have persisted and the team still has the ability to look completely different from night to night. But this win against the Hornets, as much as anything, may have been a glimpse into what the Lakers should have been, according to Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register:
Mike D'Antoni said Kobe and Dwight playing like that was what everyone envisioned this to be. #Lakers— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) March 7, 2013
There's not much time left, but perhaps we're finally seeing the top-end potential of this team, if only for a couple of quarters at a time. To really put a run together, Bryant and his teammates will have to sustain their performance for a few weeks.
It's hard to know how many times a season can be "saved" in a single year, but whatever the record is, Bryant and the Lakers are threatening it.