LOS ANGELES -- Eric Gordon has developed quite a bit in his 3-year Clippers career, from understated, third-option shooting guard to emerging young scorer.
Sunday's game might have been the next step for the soft-spoken two guard, who proved he could win on big stages. Going head-to-head with Lakers star Kobe Bryant, Gordon stood blow-for-blow with the former MVP and delivered the dramatic closing punches down the stretch of the Clippers' 99-92 win.
Bryant had 27 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals in 37 minutes. Gordon played 41 and countered with 30 points, six assists and four steals. He had 15 points in the final 13 minutes of the game ,as the Clippers outscored the Lakers by 15 in that span to come from eight points down and earn the win.
At first, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said Gordon was simply "solid, as usual." Then, after taking a look at a box score, he started to pile on the praise, remarking that Gordon guarded Kobe "as well as you can guard him" and responded well to the extra pressure placed on his shoulders in a game like Sunday's.
But did Gordon out-Kobe Kobe?
"I wouldn't say that," Del Negro said. "Kobe's a spectacular player. I love the way he works, and I respect the way he works. But Eric Gordon is really setting the tone for us. He's really elevating his game."
Gordon, 22, is a full 10 years younger than Bryant. But the two have been friends since Gordon entered Indiana University as a highly touted 18-year-old freshman in 2007. Since then Bryant has followed Gordon's career step-by-step across the hall at Staples Center, as the two shared the same agent, L.A.-based Rob Pelinka.
Bryant said Sunday he always felt like Gordon was under the radar with the Clippers, playing for a "mess" of a team without an identity.
"I knew he had a lot of potential and a lot of talent, and I think L.A. is kind of seeing a player develop right in front of their eyes," Bryant said. "Now they seem to have an identity; they know how they want to use him.
"He knows what his role is, and it makes it a lot easier for him."
Gordon had a dual role Sunday. He was the Clippers' No. 1 scorer and their No. 1 defender, guarding Bryant one-on-one for much of the game.
Bryant still made his shots -- hitting 8-of-17 from the field and 10-of-14 from the line -- but he had to work for them.
The shots came in typical Kobe fashion -- fadeaway jumpers and quick 10- and 12-footers inside the key. He had a three-inch advantage over Gordon, and he used it effectively.
"Kobe takes a lot of tough shots," Gordon said. "He was just shooting over the top of me ,and he was making them. There's not too much you can do. All I tried to do was force him to hit jump shots and not let him get to the basket.
He did that convincingly.
"[Gordon] played his heart out on [Bryant]," said reserve guard Randy Foye, who had nine points in the crucial fourth quarter, including two key 3-pointers. "Kobe doesn't just make those shots against [Gordon], he makes them against everybody, so I think [Gordon] played [Bryant] pretty good."
And when Griffin started taking over in the fourth, Gordon was the complementary piece, finding Griffin in the low post for easy baskets and hitting open 3s when Griffin passed the ball out to the perimeter. Gordon drove the ball to the hoop with no hesitation against Bryant and Artest in the final minutes.
"That's what you want to do to another guy when he scores the basketball," Gordon said. "Attack him, too; wear him down a little bit."
For the Clippers (14-25), it was their fourth win in five tries, with three of those victories coming against legitimate contenders in the Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat and Lakers. Gordon is averaging almost 28 points per game in that span as the true No. 1 option for a suddenly surging team.
"He can be that guy," Foye said of his backcourt teammate. "He's shown so far that he can be that guy who, when you need a shot or anything like that, he's the guy to go to."