In another time, there would have been a mild panic if Kobe Bryant wasn’t shooting the basketball. It’s part of what has made him an international icon and one of the most recognizable people on the planet.
This is now, and the 13-year NBA veteran has enough help in power forwards Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom (13 points, 8 rebounds) and young center Andrew Bynum (7 points, 3 caroms), that he no longer needs to be the focal point every time down the court.
Bryant is the reigning Most Valuable Player, and the one coaches have consistently picked as the player they’d have shoot the ball at the end of a game. But his role has changed, and it’s made the Lakers the odds-on favorite to win their 15th title, second only to the Boston Celtics, who defeated the Lakers in six games last season.
After a quiet first quarter last Sunday afternoon against Utah at the jammed-packed Staples Center, Bryant did what he does best, and that’s lead the Lakers to a 113-100 Game One win over the Jazz in a Western Conference first-round playoff match.
Bryant dropped in a team-best 24 points, and small forward Trevor Ariza added a career-high 21 post-season points on eight-of-10 shooting, followed by Gasol’s 20 points.
Gasol, who fouled out, also picked off nine rebounds, added four blocks and two steals.
Never in doubt, the Jazz, who made 39.1 percent from the floor (34 of 87), crawled to within nine points in the third and fourth quarters. The number 8-seeded Jazz (48-34) trailed, 86-73, after the third quarter.
Each time, the Lakers rallied and none was more impressive than when shooting guard Bryant, who finished with eight assists, threw down a mammoth dunk over reserve small forward Paul Millsap (15 points, 8 boards) late in the fourth quarter. Millsap was called for a foul, and the Lakers enjoyed a 12-point cushion.
Ahead by 22 points at the intermission, the Lakers (40 of 72 for 55.6 percent) sputtered to begin the third quarter as the Jazz cut into the lead, outscoring the Lakers, 15-8, as Utah trailed, 70-55, with 6:08 left on the clock.
The Lakers (65-17) own the best record in the Western Conference, and will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, until, and if they meet, Cleveland in the Finals.
Playing race-horse basketball, the Lakers took command, 17-10, after slightly more than six minutes had expired.
The pace continued for the next six minutes or so, as the Lakers jumped ahead, 30-19, after the first quarter, with Bryant scoring only three points. Bryant had 12 points at the half.
Acquired from Charlotte, reserve point guard Shannon Brown added a surprising scoring punch, tallying nine points and hitting all three three-pointers.
The Lakers opened up a 39-23 lead with 9:01 left in the second quarter, led 51-36 with 3:13 showing on the clock and then went on an 11-4 spurt to close out the half.
Utah power forward Carlos Boozer scored a game-best 27 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while point guard Deron Williams handed off 17 assists and dropped in 16 points.
If the Jazz are to get back in this best-of-seven series, Boozer and Williams will have to play even better, if that’s possible.
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.