In the 10th straight Christmas day game of his career, and the first matchup between the Lakers and Celtics since Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, Kobe Bryant quietly orchestrated the biggest Lakers win in over six months.
While Pau Gasol has gotten all of the recognition for the late game push that propelled the Lakers to their most promising victory in nine games against the “Big Three” Celtics, it was Bryant who kept the Lakers in the game early. When the Celtics tied the game at 81, it was Bryant who engineered all of the Lakers’ final 13 points, setting up the Lakers’ nine point victory.
After missing their first two shots of the game, the Lakers hit five of their next seven, putting together a 10-4 run to take a three-point lead. The Celtics, however, responded with six straight points, taking a 13-10 lead. Sensing an opportunity for Boston to put the Lakers in an early hole, Kobe Bryant waited no longer.
On three of the Lakers’ next four offensive possessions, Bryant set up in the high post, just off the right elbow. The first time, he drew the double team, turned and drained a fadeaway jumpshot.
The next time down the floor, he faced up and effortlessly blew by Ray Allen, forcing Allen to foul him so as not to give up an easy dunk.
Resetting after the foul, he broke free on a Luke Walton screen, again received the ball in the same spot, and again hit the turnaround jumper, taking back the lead.
After Paul Pierce hit a jumpshot to put Boston back on top, Kobe once again found the same spot on the floor, and once again he elevated and hit the jumpshot.
After Luke Walton and Kevin Garnett traded shots, Bryant received the ball beyond the three-point line. Having watched Bryant hit his last three jumpshots, Ray Allen was playing him close. Kobe effortlessly drove around Allen and sliced through four Boston defenders for a point blank layup.
Going into the second quarter, the Lakers were down by one point — but not for long. On the their first offensive possession, Bryant received the ball at the top of the key, just inside the three-point line. Feeling his shot, he simply rose up and drained yet another jumper.
After a Glen Davis miss, Kobe brought the ball back down the court. Hesitating for a split second at the three-point line, he hit the gas and blew past Tony Allen for an easy layup — his seventh made basket in 10 tries for 14 points, including 12 of their last 17.
On the Lakers’ next possession, he again received the ball near the right elbow. As the double team arrived, Bryant found a cutting Lamar Odom, who got to the basket, drew the foul, and made both free throws.
On the other end of the court, Bryant initiated the most stunning play of the game. After a Glen Davis miss was batted around, Bryant got to the loose ball, batting it to the other end of the court even as he took an elbow to the face from Ray Allen. Beating Eddie House to the ball, Ariza spun in the air, finding a trailing Sasha Vujacic as he flew out of bounds. Vujacic collected the pass at full speed, putting up a layup that hesitated on the rim before dropping through the basket, just as a foul was called on the play. Vujacic made the free throw to complete the three-point play, opening up a six-point Lakers lead.
After Ray Allen hit a three-pointer on the other end, Bryant found his new favorite spot on the court for the fourth time, once again elevating and draining a jumpshot from the right elbow — his eighth made basket in only 11 tries for 16 points, including 14 of the last 23 for the Lakers.
By assisting on Lamar Odom’s free throws and initiating the highlight play that led to Sasha Vujacic’s layup “and one,” Kobe Bryant had been directly involved in 18 of the Lakers’ 23 points since halfway through the first quarter.
Boston’s First Push
With the Lakers lead at five and growing — a lead that wouldn’t be threatened until late in the third quarter — Kobe Bryant allowed himself to take a back seat, helping set up his teammates as the Lakers’ cushion grew.
Midway through the third quarter, Boston trimmed an eight-point lead to three on a Paul Pierce three-pointer. A few moments later, Bryant found himself wide open behind the three-point line, received a pass from Derek Fisher, and nailed the long jumper, pushing the lead back to six.
On the next trip down the floor, Bryant called loudly for the ball, drew the defense, and then hit Pau Gasol for an easy dunk.
Boston would make another push, this time taking the lead late in the third quarter. With Bryant on the bench, Odom and Vujacic picked up the slack, hitting long jumpshots to take a four-point lead into the fourth.
With the Game on the Line
Boston wasn’t finished. On consecutive baskets by Kevin Garnett, they took a two-point lead with 3:36 remaining in the game. With little time remaining and the Celtics looking strong, Kobe Bryant took over once again.
Taking a pass from Pau Gasol, he drove into the right corner, elevated, and hit a fall-away jumper to tie the game.
After Ray Allen missed a three-point attempt, Bryant drove to the free throw line, drawing a sea of green. As the defense scrambled to rotate, Bryant found a wide open Gasol at the right elbow. Pau took and made the open jumper, the first of three well chronicled clutch baskets by Gasol.
Ray Allen missed another three-pointer, and Kobe collected the rebound. On the other end of the court, he drove first right, then left, met at every turn by multiple green jerseys. Drawing a triple team, he again found Pau Gasol below the free throw line. Gasol cashed in on an unchallenged floater, pushing the lead to four.
Garnett hit a long jumper to keep Boston in the game. On the other end of the court, Bryant once again drew the triple team, and once again he found Pau Gasol, wide open at the free throw line. For a third straight possession, Gasol took advantage of open floor space to drive to the basket, making the layup and drawing a foul in the process. Gasol coolly hit the free throw, pushing the lead to five.
Closing the Deal
Back on defense, Gasol switched onto Ray Allen, forcing Kobe to guard Kevin Garnett. As he had once earlier in the game, Bryant blanketed Garnett, denying him the ball and preventing him from exploiting the mismatch. Allen, looking to exploit his own mismatch, called for the ball on the right wing. As he elevated for the three-point shot, Pau Gasol soared in from behind the screen, blocking the shot.
As Trevor Ariza leaked out on the break, both teams bobbled the loose ball. Kobe Bryant, coming from his defensive position in the low post, arrived to tap the ball out to Ariza, who finished the play with an emphatic, two-handed, windmill dunk.
Again on defense, the Celtics tried yet again to close the gap, but once again, Gasol got a piece of Paul Pierce’s three-pointer. As the Celtics recovered and the shot clock dwindled, Eddie House was forced to take a very long three-pointer. The shot missed, and Bryant came down with the rebound.
Bringing the ball down the floor, Kobe watched the seconds tick off the clock. Faking right, he drove left, once again leaving Ray Allen behind him. Driving around Garnett and straight through the Celtics defense, he emerged underneath the basket, making an easy layup to put the game out of reach for the Celtics.
Master of Puppets
Most of the credit for the late push that led the Lakers to their most impressive win yet over the Garnett-Allen-Pierce Celtics has gone to Pau Gasol — and understandably so, as he hit three key baskets in a row and blocked not one, but two three-point attempts that could have brought the Celtics within striking distance.
As CelticsBlog graciously pointed out, Gasol scored seven points on 3-for-3 from the field and 1-for-1 from the line in the fourth quarter, along with two key blocked shots —all in less than two minutes of game time.
For the game, Gasol tallied 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting, 6-for-6 from the foul line, five assists, three rebounds, and three blocks.
But behind it all, it was Kobe Bryant that orchestrated both the early push to take the lead, and the late push to win the game. It was Bryant who created all 13 of the Lakers’ final points, either by deliberately creating wide open shots for his teammates, or by scoring on his own. It was Bryant who orchestrated the 13-2 run with which the Lakers closed the game, transforming a late two-point deficit into a decisive nine-point victory.
Though Gasol’s fourth quarter statistics were impressive, Bryant’s were even more so: He scored six points on 3-for-3 shooting from the field, along with five rebounds, four assists, and one jump ball in which the Lakers gained possession.
For the game, Bryant scored 27 points on 13-for-23 shooting (56.5%), along with five assists (four in the final three minutes), and a team-high nine rebounds.
While it is nice that Bryant finally has help — a sidekick who can finish and hit clutch shots, a big man who can help keep the defense honest, and supporting players who put forth maximum effort and make energy plays to turn the tide of the game — the best player on the floor against Boston was not Pau Gasol, as everyone from ESPN to the Celtics’ fans would have you believe.
As he has been countless times before, Kobe Bryant was the best player on the floor and the best player in the world on Christmas Day. He was whatever the Lakers needed, whenever they needed it — responding whenever Boston threatened to make a push or take control, keeping his team in it early and orchestrating the victory late.
He was the Master of Puppets, pulling the strings — first punishing the Celtics when they played off him early in the game; and then later, sucking green jerseys to himself like a black hole on the court, creating wide open shots for his teammates.
With a quiet but masterful performance on Christmas Day, Kobe Bryant put the Boston Celtics on notice: The Lakers are at full strength, and they’re ready. And containing him won’t be as easy this time.