The Toronto Raptors showed plenty of energy in Wednesday night’s clash with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Unfortunately for them, so did Kobe Bryant – particularly with the game on the line.
The reigning NBA MVP scored 10 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter – including a pivotal jumper with 23.6 seconds left – as the Lakers escaped with a 115-107 win over the Raptors, who lost all-star forward Chris Bosh to a knee injury.
Bryant was harassed and hurried all night by Toronto guard Joey Graham, but came up with a fourth-quarter flourish after the Lakers struggled to keep pace with the spirited Raptors for the first 36 minutes. Bryant’s performance, on the heels of a 61-point explosion against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday, lifted Los Angeles (39-9) to its fourth straight win heading into Thursday’s NBA Finals rematch with the Celtics in Boston.
“We got it going a little bit more (in the fourth quarter),” said Bryant. “We obviously picked up our energy a little bit.
“It felt like the first three quarters, we didn’t have the pop we needed. In the fourth quarter it seemed to be there for us.”
Pau Gasol added 31 points and 15 rebounds while Lamar Odom had 13 points and Derek Fisher 12 for the Lakers
Joey Graham had a career-high 24 points for the Raptors (19-32), while Jermaine O’Neal had his strongest all-around game of the season with 22 points, nine rebounds and nine blocks. Andrea Bargnani added 21 points and Anthony Parker 18 in Toronto’s fourth straight loss, dropping them 13 games below .500 for the first time since the end of the 2005-06 season.
Raptors head coach Jay Triano said he was pleased with the team’s performance, and applauded Graham’s effort on the defensive end against Bryant, the league’s third-leading scorer.
“I thought Joey did a great job,” said Triano. “It’s tough to say that when a guy gets 36 points, but he was there all the time. There was nothing easy.
“We forced him to take challenged shots and he’s going to make a bunch of them. And he did.”
Graham said guarding Bryant was a challenge he relished.
“(Triano) was saying before the game, ‘make Kobe work,”‘ said Graham. “That means on defence and on offence.
“I was trying to run him as much as possible and get him tired. It didn’t work, but I tried.”
Bosh had 12 points and eight rebounds before leaving the game early in the fourth quarter with a sprained right knee. He was taken to a local hospital for tests, and his status for Friday’s game against the New Orleans Hornets is up in the air.
The Raptors were already without point guard Jose Calderon, who sat with a sore hamstring. It’s the same ailment that forced him to miss two games in November and another 10 in January.
Despite playing short-handed yet again, Toronto led by five points after each of the first two quarters, then survived a 12-point third quarter from Gasol to take an 87-85 advantage into the fourth.
With Bosh out of the game, Bryant hit a long jumper to gave the Lakers their first lead of the second half with 6:27 left, and Sasha Vujacic followed with a three-pointer to make it 98-94.
Bryant hit another jumper to preserve the four-point edge, then added an 18-footer with 2:17 left to extend the lead to six.
Parker followed with a three and Graham added a layup to make it a two-point game with 42.7 seconds left.
The Lakers then put the ball back in Bryant’s hands – and he came through, finding open space for the uncontested jumper that put the game out of reach. He added a pair of free throws down the stretch as half the sellout Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,800 chanted MVP, while the other half booed.
“We usually have a tough game here,” said Jackson, whose Lakers improved to 16-5 on the road. “We were prepared for this type of a game here.”
The Lakers shot 50.6 per cent compared to 46.7 for the Raptors, and outrebounded Toronto 45-40.
Bryant was greeted with a warm ovation during pre-game introductions – no surprise considering the dozens of No. 24 jerseys littering the ACC stands. Fans gave him more love when he made his first basket nearly three minutes into the game.
Unfortunately for Bryant, the majority of cheering was reserved for the Raptors early on. Toronto hit eight of its first 12 shots, and jumped out to an improbable 21-9 lead after Parker hit a three-pointer from the left corner and drew the foul for a rare four-point play.
The Lakers responded with a 12-2 run over the next three minutes – spurred by three three-pointers from Bryant – to trim the lead to two. Bryant added an acrobatic reverse layup that drew a chorus of oohs from the ACC crowd, but the Raptors closed strong to take a 31-26 lead after one quarter.
Los Angeles whittled away the deficit less than three minutes into the second, but the Raptors responded with a 10-2 run – capped by a Graham dunk on a deft pass from O’Neal – to restore an eight-point advantage. O’Neal led the way with 16 points and six rebounds as Toronto carried a 63-58 lead into the break.
Bryant had just three points in the second quarter, but still led all scorers with 17 at the half.
Notes: O’Neal and Lakers F Josh Powell were involved in a battle of one-upsmanship in the fourth quarter. O’Neal stuffed Powell’s dunk attempt at one end, only to have Powell return the favour on Toronto’s ensuing possession. Powell jawed at O’Neal, then took the ball to the rim again – only to be greeted with another block from O’Neal, who taunted Powell in return as the crowd went bonkers. … Triano was asked before the game if he had to remind his players that Bryant is only human. “We’re not sure he is,” Triano joked. … Former sprinter Donovan Bailey, who won double gold for Canada at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, attended the game.