With historic effort, Kobe Bryant wills Lakers closer to playoffs

PORTLAND, Ore. -- His aching feet finally out of the ice bucket, his laser-like determination already focused on the next game -- the next challenge -- it was time for Kobe Bryant to ask a question.

It was a question to which I assumed he already knew the answer: When was his last 50-point game? "No, I don't," Bryant said, so I reminded him that it was a little more than four years ago. The Roger Maris game.

Despite what you read, Bryant isn't that old, so he shot me a puzzled look. Roger Maris?

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"Sixty-one," I said.

“Oh,” Bryant said, the memories of that epic night in Madison Square Garden rushing back. “Interesting.”

It is beyond interesting now for Bryant and the Lakers, every minute of this push to merely claim that precious eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference. After scoring 23 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter the night before at home against New Orleans, Bryant dropped 47 on the Trail Blazers Wednesday night -- playing all 48 minutes -- to propel the Lakers to a 113-106 victory that kept their playoff fate in their own hands.

But back to Bryant, the driving force -- sometimes, the only force -- propelling the Lakers toward that elusive playoff spot. On the second night of a back-to-back, at age 34, Bryant also had eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks and three steals. These are numbers that no other NBA player has produced in a single game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

It wasn't 61 at the Garden, at the Mecca. But it was another kind of otherworldly greatness, at another Garden, that Bryant unleashed during his stubborn, slow-burning, controlled rage in the final, thrilling days of his 17th season.

“He's still pushing,” Metta World Peace said. “Still trying to get us up there.”

He went toe-to-toe with the fabulous rookie, Damian Lillard -- “He's fantastic, man, really fantastic,” Bryant said -- and carried the Lakers out of an embarrassing first quarter in which they surrendered 41 points to a Portland team that started four rookies. He orchestrated a potent two-man game with his championship sidekick, Pau Gasol, as the Lakers recovered from a five-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

He twice blocked 22-year-old rookie Will Barton -- who was 5 when Bryant was drafted -- at the rim. He brushed off Dwight Howard's finger-pointing after a third-quarter dunk by Barton, then coldly drilled a 30-footer while Howard fruitlessly posted up under the basket, waving for the ball.

He did all this because he damn well pleased, that's why.

“You don't look for excuses,” Bryant said. “You don't wait for anybody else. You don't have patience. You do it yourself. By doing that, it sets an example for everybody else to do the same thing. Not to sit and wait on everybody else to be aggressive or make plays; everybody just go out there and do it yourself and that's how you wind up getting these collective wins.”

I'm not sure that computes, really, but at this point Bryant has taken over the Lakers' quest for a playoff berth and there's no getting in the way.

“This isn't breathing room,” he said. “This isn't breathing room at all. I'm still on edge.”

On the edge of what, insanity? For the fourth time in six games, Bryant logged at least 47 minutes. It was the Lakers' fifth victory in Portland since 2002, their first sweep of a back-to-back all season. Bryant's 47 was a Rose Garden record for an opponent.

“There's no secret,” Bryant said. “There's no magic formula. I watch what I eat and I train my ass off. I'm in the type of condition right now that, a lot of my predecessors at this age probably couldn't do it.”

Not to mention a lot of much younger contemporaries.

By winning in Portland, the Lakers spared themselves the added pressure of Friday night at home against Golden State being a virtual must-win. Had the Lakers lost to the Blazers and then the Warriors, they would've been one loss or a Utah win away from being eliminated. Now, with the Jazz holding the tiebreaker, the Lakers can get in by winning out no matter what Utah does.

“When you're battle-tested, you really figure out what your team is made of,” Bryant told CBSSports.com. “I think this is great for us. If we continue to work hard and things fall the way we expect them to and we're in the postseason, I think going through type of pressure in these games will help prepare us for the postseason.”

Bryant is such a maniacal competitor, so obsessed with chasing that sixth championship, that you don't know whether he's found some motivational elixir or he's fooling himself. Time will tell. But in a moment of reflection after the dust had settled on this virtuoso performance --one of the last masterpieces he knows he has left -- Bryant said he still believes championship qualities lurk within the Lakers' locker room.

“It's here,” he said. “Definitely. Absolutely. A lot of teams would've folded tonight. Earlier in the year, with us not having the identity that we have and not knowing how we're going to use each other, we probably would've lost this game.”

Whether the Lakers will be breakfast, lunch or dinner for the Spurs or Thunder if they make it to the postseason at all is a discussion Bryant refuses to entertain. Other sports have no bearing on basketball, because the brutality of the NBA playoffs almost always weeds out the weak. But that doesn't stop Bryant from leaning on examples like the Los Angeles Kings and New York Giants, who both squeaked into the playoffs and won championships in 2012.

“It's about making the most out of it and turning it into a good situation,” Bryant said. “I really lean on examples from other sports. The L.A. Kings and what they did last year and the Giants, what they were able to accomplish, going through a very tumultuous regular season and then putting things together at the right time. There's things that you can lean on to look at how they were able to succeed.”

Whether that is the experience of 17 years talking or a hopeless optimist reading himself a fairy tale, nobody knows. Of course, the Lakers have to get there first. And how they get there, if not on the strength of Bryant's greatness, isn't entirely clear.

Steve Nash missed his fifth consecutive game due to hip and hamstring soreness, saying before the game that this has been the most frustrating season of his 17-year career. He could be back Friday against the Warriors or Sunday against the Spurs.

“Too early to say,” coach Mike D'Antoni said.

Nash or no Nash, one giant of the Lakers' locker room wasn't singing anyone's praises after this crucial victory -- one that should've lifted some of the malaise that has hovered over this Lakers team all season. Howard, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds but was mostly a bystander while Bryant again stole the show, spoke matter-of-factly about what will punch the Lakers' playoff ticket in the next three games. He didn't mention anything about Bryant.

“When we play inside-out, it makes it tough for teams to guard us,” Howard said. “They're so worried about making sure that we don't score in the post that we can kick it out to guys for threes. And when we play that way, like I said, it slows the game down, it saves our legs, and when you face teams that want to run, they hate that when you slow the game down. That's the best way to play.”

D'Antoni has scrapped 90 percent of his offense and adapted to Howard's desire to be a focal point, running set plays for Howard and Gasol to start every game. Maybe in the playoffs, the Lakers will figure out how to play that way. Bryant, however, isn't waiting to find out. He's “doing it himself,” as he said in his own words. His sacrifice, his unleashing of whatever brilliance he has left, will wait for no one.

“Three more,” Bryant said at his locker. “And then a couple of days off, hopefully.”

But for now, there's no rest -- no breathing room. Kobe Bryant remains on edge, and somehow, still at the top of his game.

 
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