Shaq definitely back, but Kobe steals show

O'Neal's late play Friday nets L.A. a win, but crowd mindful of Bryant's points

Pro Basketball

February 23, 2003|By LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

LOS ANGELES - Only the play of Kobe Bryant could relegate the return of Shaquille O'Neal to a side note.

O'Neal played a brilliant fourth quarter and turned in a strong overall effort Friday after a three-game absence, but by the final minute of the Los Angeles Lakers' 92-84 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, all eyes were on Bryant - as they have been for the past two weeks.

With a raucous Staples Center crowd of 18,997 urging him to shoot, Bryant hit a 17-foot jumper with 9.4 seconds remaining, which gave him 40 points and extended his streak of scoring at least 40 to eight games.

"He's the MVP," said O'Neal, who showed flashes of his former dominance on the way to 24 points and 12 rebounds. O'Neal gained momentum as the game went on and made the difference in the fourth quarter, when he scored six consecutive points to turn an 84-81 lead into the winning margin.

O'Neal had done the dirty work, and with the game secured in the final minute, the fans wanted the ball in Bryant's hands. He took it at the top of the key, dribbled left and handed off to Robert Horry, who passed back to Bryant.

Bryant drove near the baseline, leaned in and made the shot as the crowd, well aware of Bryant's point total, roared with approval.

"Rob looked at me like this," Bryant said, raising his eyebrows. "He gave me that look, the signal for me to give it off and him to pass back, and we did it."

Bryant supplied the late drama, but the Lakers wouldn't have been in position to win without O'Neal, particularly during a third-quarter stretch when Portland's Scottie Pippen tightly guarded Bryant.

Bryant scored 25 points in a brilliant first half but had 33 with four minutes to play. His three-pointer with 3:38 remaining gave the Lakers an 80-78 lead, and the Lakers survived by letting Bryant create his own chances and feeding the ball in to an increasingly effective O'Neal.

"We have that threat down in the middle," Bryant said, "and it forces the opposition to have to collapse and they have to respect his presence. Defensively he helped us a lot also. They can't just penetrate and have easy opportunities at the basket anymore."

O'Neal showed few effects of the knee and toe problems that cost him three games and even played with a mouthpiece, a sign he was ready for battle.

"I feel good," O'Neal said. "Coach [Phil Jackson] was gracious enough to give me a couple days off, so I'm trying to get back on track. The team played well. We had a so-so third quarter, but we bounced back. We're starting to look like the Lakers of old."

The Blazers tried to focus on Bryant, but he had 15 points after one quarter and 10 in the second as the Lakers took a 49-42 halftime lead.

Portland got its usual strong game from Rasheed Wallace, who finished with 23 points, and an even better effort from Bonzi Wells, who had 25 points, six rebounds and five assists.

No other Lakers besides Bryant and O'Neal scored in double figures, but Mark Madsen continued his surprisingly strong play of late with six points and four rebounds in 18 minutes and some pesky defense.

Bryant took just three shots from the field in the third quarter, and the Blazers threatened to pull away with 12 consecutive points to start the third.

Portland took a 73-67 lead two minutes into the fourth quarter, but the Lakers scored nine of the next 11 points to take a one-point lead with 6:58 remaining.

A scoring run

Since an 11-point performance against New Jersey on Jan. 24, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant has scored 35 or more points in 12 consecutive games and 40 or more in the past eight. During the 12-game stretch, Bryant is averaging 42.5 points per game.

Date Opp. Min. FG 3FG FT Pts.

Jan. 29 at Phoenix 46 15-29 0-1 10-11 40

Jan. 31 at Sacramento 43 14-29 3-6 7-8 38

Feb. 1 vs. Utah 44 12-25 2-3 16-18 42

Feb. 4 at Indiana 42 12-31 1-5 10-10 35

Feb. 6 at New York 41 17-27 4-4 8-11 46

Feb. 11 vs. Denver 31 12-20 1-3 17-21 42

Feb. 12 at Denver 31 15-28 3-8 18-20 51

Feb. 14 vs. San Antonio 45 19-41 2-3 4-6 44

Feb. 16 vs. New York 42 14-31 3-5 9-10 40

Feb. 18 vs. Houston 54 19-38 3-9 11-11 52

Feb. 19 at Utah 40 15-29 4-6 6-9 40

Feb. 21 vs. Portland 42 15-32 3-7 7-9 40

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