by Cass Waters
Kobe Bryant drove past Josh Smith and rose up with the athleticism of a player half his age, throwing down an arena-rocking, one-handed dunk. A few possessions later, Bryant drove right at Smith and willed a layup over the taller defender for the Los Angeles Lakers’ winning points.
For a .500 team, the Lakers are looking pretty good lately. Bryant is the biggest reason why. Bryant scored 11 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and hit the go-ahead layup with 9 seconds left, leading the Lakers back to .500 for the first time in more than two months with a 99-98 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night. Steve Blake stole Smith’s final pass in the waning seconds for the Lakers (30-30), who blew a 16-point lead in the second half before Bryant scored their last six points.
After Bryant scored the Lakers’ final basket while driving directly at Smith, Blake swiped Smith’s desperation pass from underneath Los Angeles’ basket. Bryant threw the ball high in the air to run out the clock on Los Angeles’ seventh straight home victory over the Hawks since 2006.
“I just had to attack,” Bryant said. “I wanted to attack and just go right at them. Take the game to them. Be aggressive. Be physical. And it worked out.”
“He’s been doing it for a long time, so you have to respect what he brings to the table,” Smith said. “He’s an assassin. He wants that moment. But from a defensive standpoint, I love taking a challenge like that and try to step up and try to make it tough for him. It was kind of like a tug-of-war match. We were going back and forth, and they made one more play than we did to win the game. I live for moments like this.”
The Lakers hadn’t been at .500 since Dec. 28, when they followed a win over Portland with six consecutive losses. They’ve spent the past six weeks digging themselves out of the latest hole in their rut-filled season, culminating in a lengthy stretch of recent solid play despite the absence of injured 7-footer Pau Gasol.
“There’s a reason why he’s the best player in the game,” Horford said of Bryant. “He did what he usually does, and we didn’t do a good enough job on him. It’s disappointing. We thought we worked hard and put ourselves in a position to win. We just had too many mistakes down the stretch.”
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