Based on their recent string of nail-biting victories, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the L.A. Lakers only know how to win one way: via the fourth-quarter comeback.
After knocking off the New Orleans Hornets by digging out of a 25-point hole on March 6, Kobe Bryant and his Laker mates erased a 10 point fourth-quarter deficit against the Toronto Raptors, eventually prevailing in a stunning 118-116 overtime victory on March 8.
In both instances, Bryant singlehandedly dragged the Lakers back from the brink of catastrophic losses. He was responsible for generating 29 of L.A.'s 33 fourth-period points against the Hornets, and his nine points in the final 1:40 against the Raptors were responsible for lifting L.A. for a second straight game.
For late-game rallies like these to be successful, almost everything has to go right. Taking the Lakers' two most recent games as examples, we've got a pair of perfect specimens to look at the anatomy of a comeback win.
Phase 1: The Deficit
It's obvious, but the glory of a great comeback can't happen without the ignominy of a massive deficit.
The Lakers allowed the woeful Hornets to put up a season-high 39 points in the second period on March 6, a run punctuated by a handful of buckets from Austin Rivers, of all people. Eric Gordon knocked down three long bombs to complement Rivers' floaters, and L.A.'s halftime disadvantage was suddenly 19 points.
Two days later against the Raptors, L.A. let their opponents take terrible, low-percentage jumpers in what should have been a sound defensive strategy. Unfortunately, DeMar DeRozan and his teammates kept nailing long twos, building a 10-point advantage by the time the third-period buzzer sounded.
Though the Lakers fell behind for different reasons in each of their two most recent games, the first necessary ingredient for a comeback was there: L.A. got outplayed for three quarters in both cases.
Phase 2: The Pivot Point
Every comeback starts somewhere, and in the case of the Lakers, the first move usually doesn't happen on the court; it happens in Bryant's reptilian brain.
Per ESPN, No. 24 told reporters after the Hornets game that his confidence never wavered:
I believed we were going to win it the whole time. The most important thing for me was to bring my teammates along with me. I had to force the game upon them a little bit and change the momentum and get everybody believing we could do this together.
Sure enough, Kobe made his belief a reality by absolutely erupting in the second half against New Orleans. The Lakers' Twitter feed encapsulated the incredible post-break surge by Bryant:
It was a similar story against the Raptors. Only this time, Bryant was trying to atone for what he perceived as his own mistakes in his comeback effort. Per Hardwood Paroxysm:
Oh, man, I love this from Bryant. "I was totally irresponsbile with the basketball all night long." on the turnovers. "Wanted a chance.."— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 9, 2013
Even though most Laker comebacks tend to begin with a decision by Bryant, there's also a necessary physical component. Basically, somebody in a yellow jersey (usually No. 24) has to make a play that signals to the rest of the Lakers that things are about to change.
Against New Orleans, Bryant started a 20-0 run at the 6:22 mark of the fourth quarter. As he piled up 13 points during that stretch, Dwight Howard took his cue, shutting down the Hornets' offense with masterful pick-and-roll defense and some serious rim protection.
And in the game against Toronto, Kobe drilled a three with 1:40 left to cut the Raptors' lead to two points. Then he hit another triple that cut it to one with 29 seconds remaining. And then he tied the game with a third three at the five-second mark.
In each game, it was abundantly clear that the Lakers, led by Bryant, had decided that losing wasn't really going to be an option.
But once rallies start, they've got to be finished. And that's where the final stage in the anatomy of a comeback enters into play.
Phase 3: The Dagger
So far as we know, neither horseshoes nor hand grenades have played prominent roles in NBA basketball, so it goes without saying that being "close" doesn't count for much in a comeback attempt. To seal the deal, there's got to be a definitive crescendo, a hope-crushing dagger.
Against the Hornets, Bryant slammed home a shockingly easy breakaway dunk with 23 seconds left. New Orleans fell asleep on the play, allowing Kobe to sneak free. The slam gave the Lakers a four-point lead and stole any hope that New Orleans might have had of a comeback of their own.
In a similar fashion, another dunk helped slam shut the Raptors' coffin. In a tie game with less than 15 seconds left in overtime, Bryant drove right, shedding a pair of Toronto defenders before elevating over the remaining trio of of Raptors in the lane.
The game-sealing slam literally featured Kobe taking on all five Toronto players in one sequence. After that play, it just didn't seem possible for the Raptors to keep fighting. Bryant had taken away whatever heart they had left.
So What's Next?
Normally, this would be the space where you'd read an argument saying something along the following lines: L.A. can't keep relying on late-game heroics from its 34-year-old superstar, so it had better find a way to take care of business before the fourth quarter.
Well, after what we've seen over the last two games, it just feels like that argument isn't valid. Sure, it makes no sense to expect the Lakers to keep winning games like this. There's no way they can keep this high-wire act up.
But maybe they've got this comeback thing down to some kind of science. Maybe they know what they're doing.
Whatever the case, L.A. has shown recently that they know how to dig out of a hole. And if they keep it up, they'll emerge from their season-long deficit in the Western Conference standings to find themselves in the playoffs.
Now that would be a comeback worthy of celebrating.