Say what you want about Kobe Bryant, he’s still the best basketball player on the planet, and that includes LeBron James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers are tied at two games apiece with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Just when it looked as though the top-seeded Lakers were about to fall to the Utah Jazz last Saturday night at Energy Solutions Arena, Bryant willed his club to a 111-110 win in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, and a three games to none advantage.
Bryant’s 15-foot fall-away baseline jumper, and three-pointer late were daggers. This only solidified his status as the NBA’s best closer.
Deron Williams, Utah’s point guard scored 28 points with nine assists, took a 22-foot jumper from the top of the key with just seconds left, and missed, and shooting guard Wesley Matthews failed on a close follow that rolled off the rim.
“We wanted to get good looks because we knew that they were going to fall,’’ said Bryant.
They did, hitting 47.1 percent from the floor, and 13 of 29 from the three-point arc. The Jazz were even better, making 48.1 percent from the field, and 10 of 22 from the arc.
Lakers’ aging point guard Derek Fisher, can still make clutch shots, nailing three of seven from the three-point line, and totaled 20 points with three assists.
Just before Williams and Matthews missed, Lakers’ small forward Ron Artest in-bounded the ball, but was slightly off target as Fisher was mugged. There was no foul called.
“We wanted to put Ron on Williams so that he could redeem himself,’’ said Bryant, a shooting guard who finished with 35 points, after scoring 20 points in the opening half.
The Jazz are the No. 5 seeded team in the conference, and were crest-fallen. “They’re a young team, and they’re well coached,’’ said Bryant, who had seven assists and four rebounds.
Utah Head Coach Jerry Sloan was a hard-nosed guard with the Chicago Bulls, and his players are cut from the same cloth.
Artest made only one of 10 from the three-point stripe in two wins at Staples Center, and was on a Twitter rampage with Lakers’ Head Coach Phil Jackson. The cerebral Zen master complained that Artest was simply taking too many.
After a slow start, Artest connected on four of seven beyond the arc, and finished with 20 points on seven-of-13 from the floor.
The Jazz led 15-9 with 5:14 left in the opening quarter, and were in front 22-17 after the first quarter.
Bryant was in an aggressive frame of mind early, and was determined to take shots, hitting four of eight in the first quarter, while scoring nine points. On the night, Bryant made 13 of 24 from the field.
Utah forged a 34-23 advantage with just under nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, but the Lakers closed to 48-43 with 2:45 left. The Jazz went into the locker room ahead 54-50.
Lakers’ power forward Pau Gasol had only four points at the half, but finished with 14 points and 17 rebounds.
Williams had 14 points and four assists at the intermission, and reserve forward Kyle Korver scored 10 points. Korver had 23 points, and missed only one shot in 10 attempts.
The Lakers took a 60-59 lead with 7:44 left in the third quarter, and led 82-80 entering the final quarter.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a contributor to trufanboxing.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.