Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
The Los Angeles Lakers, led by a magical performance from Kobe Bryant, made just enough plays down the stretch to fend off a valiant effort from Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
Just like old times ... That's what today's game felt like. It felt like the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks were two heavyweight fighters slugging it out over 12 rounds. Trading shots. A fierce left hook from one team, followed by a body blow combination from the other. Back and forth, back and forth, until finally, if only because you can fight 18 rounds or play more than 48 minutes, one team is declared victorious while the other still stands, ready to fight on.
Considering that both the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks would be on the outside looking in if the NBA playoffs were to start tomorrow, you could hardly call any contest between them a heavyweight bout. But that didn't stop the two teams from throwing down an absolute slugfest in a vastly entertaining 4th quarter which was filled with copycat syndrome. Every time the Lakers made a shot, the Mavs had an answer. Every time Dallas missed, the Lakers gave the ball back on a turnover. The quarter started with a four point Laker lead, and ended with a four point Laker lead, and the final frame was spent entirely within those limits.
In the end, as he has done so many times to this particular team, Kobe Bryant was too much for Dallas to take. Mamba was masterful throughout, but left his finest work until the 4th quarter; 5-5 shooting, 3-4 from the FT line (he did have two turnovers though). He re-entered the game with 9 minutes left and the Lakers down two, and proceeded to hit three ridiculous jump shots on the next three possessions ... all of which were matched by Dallas shots as well. Then, Dallas went cold, failing to score any points over nearly four minutes as the Lakers nosed in front and survived the final onslaught.
Kobe ended up with 38 points on 20 shots, and the Lakers needed every bit of his offensive explosion because Dirk Nowitizki played possibly his finest game of the season as well, dropping 30 points on 19 shots. Kobe had some help, with Steve Nash continuing to be aggressive with his shot (20 points on 12 shots). Dwight Howard struggled a bit with 9 points and 2-7 shooting to go with foul trouble (including one really stupid foul in the 1st quarter, picking up his 2nd by just grabbing somebody at mid court). However, Howard did pull down 13 rebounds in limited minutes, and was a clear boost to the team in the minutes he did play. He led the team with +15, because every second he was off the floor, Dallas attacked the basket like Tom attacks Jerry, only with a lot more success. He stayed on the floor when it counted, and his defensive presence helped stem the tide.
And so we have yet another small piece of evidence that the Lakers might actually be building something here. In the three games since the All Star Break, we can now see some signs of a team that has begun to heal the emotional wounds they've inflicted upon each other, although the physical wounds inflicted upon them by the gods still remain. Dwight is playing the way we want Dwight to play. Kobe is starting to look like Kobe again. Nash is the insanely efficient shooter we drooled over when he arrived. They aren't dominating teams, but for the first time in a while, they beat a team that played pretty well because they played even better. They beat a team that had every bit as much motivation as they did. The Lakers do finally seem to be building something, but will it be too late?