LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Kobe Bryant drove past Josh Smith and rose up with the athleticism of a player half his age, throwing down an arena-rocking, one-handed dunk. A few possessions later, Bryant drove right at Smith and willed a layup over the taller defender for the Los Angeles Lakers’ winning points.
For a .500 team, the Lakers are looking pretty good lately. Bryant is the biggest reason why.
Bryant scored 11 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and hit the go-ahead layup with 9 seconds left, leading the Lakers back to .500 for the first time in more than two months with a 99-98 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night.
Steve Blake stole Smith’s final pass in the waning seconds for the Lakers (30-30), who blew a 16-point lead in the second half before Bryant scored their last six points.
After Bryant scored the Lakers’ final basket while driving directly at Smith, Blake swiped Smith’s desperation pass from underneath Los Angeles’ basket. Bryant threw the ball high in the air to run out the clock on Los Angeles’ seventh straight home victory over the Hawks since 2006.
“I just had to attack,” Bryant said. “I wanted to attack and just go right at them. Take the game to them. Be aggressive. Be physical. And it worked out.”
Steve Nash had 15 points and 10 assists, while Dwight Howard added 11 points and 15 rebounds in the Lakers’ 13th win in 18 games. Los Angeles hung on for a quality win over the Hawks, a near-certain playoff team with ample motivation to knock off the high-profile Lakers.
Kobe wouldn’t allow it, making one big play after another down the stretch. Afterward, he repeatedly compared himself to a fine wine — only getting better with age.
“It was more of a message to my team here, to kind of have that will, that hunger, to push through it by any means necessary,” he said. “It’s just a challenge. I wouldn’t even really categorize it as fun. The fun comes in the challenge, and we’re up for it.”
The Lakers hadn’t been at .500 since Dec. 28, when they followed a win over Portland with six consecutive losses. They’ve spent the past six weeks digging themselves out of the latest hole in their rut-filled season, culminating in a lengthy stretch of recent solid play despite the absence of injured 7-footer Pau Gasol.
If the Lakers manage to upset Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, they would have their first winning record since Nov. 20, when they beat Brooklyn in coach Mike D’Antoni’s debut to go 6-5.
Al Horford scored 24 points and Smith had 19 for the Hawks, who had won four straight before consecutive road losses to the Suns and Lakers. Atlanta hasn’t beaten the Lakers anywhere since March 31, 2010.
Smith relished his matchup with Bryant, even if he got the short end of it.
“He’s been doing it for a long time, so you have to respect what he brings to the table,” Smith said. “He’s an assassin. He wants that moment. But from a defensive standpoint, I love taking a challenge like that and try to step up and try to make it tough for him. It was kind of like a tug-of-war match. We were going back and forth, and they made one more play than we did to win the game. I live for moments like this.”
Bryant put the Lakers up 96-95 with 2:18 to play on that ferocious dunk. After turnovers by both teams, Jeff Teague reclaimed the lead for Atlanta with 45 seconds left on a floating layup in traffic.
After Bryant hit two free throws, Horford put the Hawks back ahead with a dunk on a backdoor pass from Smith with 26.7 seconds left. But Bryant drove around Horford and right into Smith at the rim, willing the ball over his defence.
“There’s a reason why he’s the best player in the game,” Horford said of Bryant. “He did what he usually does, and we didn’t do a good enough job on him. It’s disappointing. We thought we worked hard and put ourselves in a position to win. We just had too many mistakes down the stretch.”
Devin Harris scored 12 of his 16 points in a three-minute spree late in the third quarter while Atlanta erased Los Angeles’ big lead.
NOTES: The Hawks finish their trip Monday night in Denver. … Atlanta coach Larry Drew was able to attend his son’s final UCLA home game on Saturday thanks to the fortunate coincidence in the Hawks’ schedule. Drew considers Los Angeles home after playing for the Clippers and Lakers, followed by a lengthy stint as a Lakers assistant coach in the 1990s prior to Phil Jackson’s arrival. … Novak Djokovic visited the Lakers’ locker room with fellow tennis player Justin Gimelstob before the game. One day after winning the Dubai Championships halfway around the globe, Djokovic spoke at length with Howard, who claims he won a school tennis tournament as a kid.