PORTLAND, Ore. – It didn’t matter that it was the Rose Garden. The “M-V-P!” chant for Kobe Bryant was loud and clear.
Bryant scored a season-high 47 points and carried the Los Angeles Lakers closer to a playoff berth with a 113-106 victory over the short-handed but tenacious Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.
The Lakers moved a full game up on the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“We’ve got no breathing room at all,” Bryant said. “I’m still on edge. We’ve got to win three more games and we’re in.”
Portland, missing the playoffs for the second straight season, has lost nine straight, the most since an 11-game skid in the 2005-06 season. Rookie Damian Lillard led the Blazers with a career-high 38 points.
Pau Gasol had 23 points, seven rebounds and nine assists, while Dwight Howard added 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers. Bryant was 18 of 18 from the free throw line and played the entire game, determined to pull out a win after trailing early.
“What he (Bryant) is doing is phenomenal. He’s determined to get us in the playoffs,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “That’s what happens when you open your mouth and guarantee that we’ll get in the playoffs.”
Bryant vowed in late February that his team would make it to the post-season. The Lakers wrap up the regular season at home with games against playoff-bound Golden State, San Antonio and Houston.
Gasol knotted the game at 96 with a layup and a jumper with 7:09 left. After Lillard’s 15-footer, Gasol added another jumper to tie it again. His layup gave the Lakers a 102-100 edge before Bryant hit a pair of free throws and added a 23-foot jump shot with 4:09 left to make it 106-100.
Howard’s alley-oop dunk from Gasol with 53 seconds left made it 110-104 and all but sealed it.
For much of the game, it seemed like Bryant the veteran against Lillard the upstart rookie.
“He’s spectacular … really fantastic,” Bryant said of the Blazers’ five-time rookie of the month. “A lot of players get hot, but he’s got the moves, patience, intelligence, the balance on his jumpers. He’s the real deal.”
Lillard has grown up admiring Bryant.
“I got to guard him and he got to guard me,” Lillard said. “I enjoyed the challenge. “
The deck was stacked from the start against the Blazers, who started four rookies for the first time in the team’s history.
Portland was without starters Wesley Matthews (ankle), J.J. Hickson (back) and Nicolas Batum (right shoulder). As a result, two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge was the only veteran starting with rookie forward Victor Claver, guards Lillard and Will Barton, and centre Meyers Leonard.
Matthews injured his right ankle in Portland’s 96-91 loss to Dallas on Sunday, while Batum was missing his fourth straight game with a sore shoulder. Hickson says he’s been dealing with a painful lower back for the past several games.
But the rookies got off to an astonishingly fast start, going up 17-8 on Lillard’s fadeaway jumper. Lillard banked in a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 22-12 and the Blazers made eight of their first nine shots from the field.
He hit another 3 to make it 35-25 and the Blazers went on to lead 41-33 at the end of the first, their most points in the opening quarter this season.
The Lakers chipped away at the lead and Bryant’s long jumper on the baseline closed Los Angeles to 50-48.
The Blazers led 69-61 at the break, but the Lakers opened the second half with a 10-0 run capped by Howard’s hook shot to pull ahead 71-69, their first lead of the game. Howard’s layup extended the lead to 78-71.
The Blazers were hurt when Claver rolled his ankle late in the third quarter and retreated to the locker room, but they stayed on the Lakers’ heels, coming within 86-85 on Eric Maynor’s running jumper and pulling in front on Luke Babbitt’s 3 pointer.
Maynor’s fadeaway put Portland up 95-90.
“It was a very good effort by our team, but unfortunately we couldn’t pull it out,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “A couple of plays down the stretch could have gone either way, a couple of shots could have gone either way. For the most part, I thought it was a well-played game against a team that’s pretty hungry to make the playoffs.”
Notes: Combined with the Lakers’ 104-96 victory over New Orleans on Tuesday night, it was the first time this season the Lakers had won both games of a back-to-back. … Lillard was awarded the NBA’s Community Assist award for March because of his anti-bullying campaign. He is the fourth rookie to win the honour, and first since Atlanta’s Al Horford in 2008. More than 5,000 fans have signed a pledge to help end bullying as part of Lillard’s “Respect” program. … Lillard became second Portland rookie to go over 500 assists. Kelvin Ransey had 555 in the 1980-81 season. … The Blazers had won three straight and 12 of their last 14 against the Lakers at the Rose Garden.