Lakers Thrive in the Moment
They all get booed, and not out of habit, but of straight disgust for what Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak have built, these players plucked from the middle of contenders’ rosters and Hall of Fame rides for fourth quarters such as these.
So, Gary Payton cocked his head and Kobe Bryant bit his lower lip and, amid the contempt that flicked at their ears and rumbled at their feet, Shaquille O’Neal scowled and Karl Malone pulled his shoulders back. The Lakers beat the Milwaukee Bucks, 113-107, on Tuesday night at the Bradley Center with a fourth quarter that was all big four, all the time, end line to end line.
They pushed and the Bucks, along with their 10-point lead -- still eight points five minutes into the last quarter -- fell. They handed the basketball to Bryant, who made two long three-point baskets in an 11-0 run that brought the Lakers from a deficit of 101-95 to a lead of 106-101 with a minute left. They leaned on Bryant, and ran with Payton, and fed it to O’Neal, whose three-point play finished the run and brought the remaining Lakers to his side, all of them convinced then that they’d also finished the Bucks.
“We won that game on experience alone, experience of our veteran players,” said Coach Phil Jackson, pressed against a wall in a crowded hallway.
The Lakers are 4-0, then, because after giving up 68 points in the middle two quarters to start their four-game trip, they held the Bucks to 21 in the fourth quarter. In it, the Lakers had 30 points and eight rebounds and five assists, all of them by Malone, O’Neal, Payton and Bryant, and no turnovers. The big four were nine for 19 from the field.
A week after being so unsure of his knee that he sat out the Lakers’ home opener, Bryant took 22 shots and scored 31 points, 13 in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously,” O’Neal said, “his leg is feeling better. He took some tough shots and hit them. He’s getting his game back.”
Bryant played 40 minutes, all 12 of the fourth quarter. His jump shots, flat and short for some big minutes through the middle part of the game, were true late, after a rest at the end of the third quarter, after which Jackson rushed him back to the floor.
“Kobe carried a big part of that for us,” Jackson said.
O’Neal had 23 points and 14 rebounds. After missing eight of his first nine free-throw attempts -- at that point he was four for 21 for the season -- he made his last four, three in the fourth quarter. O’Neal did not terrorize Buck center Daniel Santiago, though there were nine stitches in Santiago’s mouth after the game that weren’t there at the start, and Santiago was a bit less game after that.
Malone made one of his first nine shots, made three of his last six, and had 11 points and 11 rebounds. Payton scored 19 points, eight in the last quarter, four on four attempts at the free-throw line. One of his five assists, on a pass from the baseline to well beyond the three-point arc, led to a 27-footer by Bryant and a 103-101 Laker lead, their first since early in the second half.
Michael Redd scored 36 points, many of his 18 in the third quarter against Payton, but Redd spent half of the fourth quarter on the bench.
Turned out the people here weren’t much in the mood for Payton, who had landed here before the last trading deadline and was gone after one playoff round. He took most of the boos. “I don’t care about that,” he said.
Bryant got a good portion of the rest, but the trend that has developed around Bryant in NBA arenas is of loud disapproval met evenly with sympathetic cheers. None of it has seemed to matter to Bryant, who has averaged more than 37 minutes in three games. He is well off his most athletic game, but he has found scoring gaps and defensive legs and, for the most part, has stayed within the offensive scheme.
With a quarter still to play against the Bucks, there was some question as to how much energy he had left, but Jackson went to him anyway.
“You know what, I’m just not afraid to dig deep,” said Bryant, who on Monday watched via the Internet as his 9-month-old daughter Natalia took her first steps. “I’m not afraid of a little pain. You get tired, your biggest fear is the pain in your legs and not being able to push through. I just gut it out.”
As a basketball franchise, you’re not going that great when an opposing player comes in and finds inspiration from the local NFL quarterback. The Bucks had their big lead well into the fourth quarter, when Bryant recalled something from the morning newspaper.
“I like what Brett Favre said about his thumb, ‘Mind over matter: If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ I like that.’ ”
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The Lakers have done their best in their first four games to dispel fears that there wouldn’t be enough shots to go around. The high and low efforts of the Lakers’ top six, with their season averages:
*--* Player High Low PPG Kobe Bryant 31 15 22.3 Shaquille O’Neal 24 16 20.0 Gary Payton 21 10 17.3 Karl Malone 18 11 15.0 Devean George 16 11 12.8 Derek Fisher 16 9 12.0