8:00 PM ET, March 12, 2009
AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX
Lakers secure playoff spot, Pacific Division crown behind Kobe's 23
• The Lakers became the fourth team in the NBA and first team in the West to clinch a playoff spot this season. They also clinched the Pacific Division.
• The Spurs lost at home for the first time in four games against the Lakers, handing San Antonio just its fourth loss in its last 22 home games overall.
• Tony Parker scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half.
-- ESPN research
Sure could have fooled most people watching.
Scoring the last of his 23 points on a 3-pointer with 1:46 left, Bryant and the Lakers became the first team in the West to secure a playoff spot with a 102-95 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night.
The Spurs have been the No. 2 team in the West most of the season, and Los Angeles validated that pecking order with a road win that also wrapped up the Pacific Division with a month to play in the regular season.
Not that Bryant cared in the slightest.
"Oh yeah," Bryant cracked, "we're really big on Pacific Division titles."
Tony Parker and Michael Finley had 25 points apiece for the Spurs, who trailed by as much as 18 points before mounting a furious fourth-quarter comeback. Parker hit a 3-pointer with 2:19 left to cut the score to 95-93, but Bryant answered right back with his 3-pointer in the face of rookie George Hill.
As Bryant left the court, a few dozen fans chanted "M-V-P! M-V-P!" in what is usually hostile territory for the Lakers.
Hill said he was surprised the shot went in.
"I thought it was pretty good defense," Hill said. "But it's Kobe, and he makes great plays. I did the best I could to challenge him and try to push him back out. He's deadly."
Pau Gasol had 23 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers. Lamar Odom had 12 points and 10 rebounds in his return from a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation in Monday's loss to Portland.
Tim Duncan had 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Spurs, whose lead over the Rockets in the Southwest Division was cut to two games. San Antonio plays at Houston on Saturday, when the Rockets will becoming off a Friday night game at Charlotte.
Drew Gooden made his Spurs debut after being signed a week ago, but played just 3 1/2 minutes, scoring two points and grabbing four rebounds.
"We couldn't get anything done offensively, and defensively they made every shot," Parker said. "After that we were in a big hole, and against the Lakers it's tough to come back."
"You're always surprised you jump out early, particularly in this building because they play so well at home," Bryant said. "But that's what we needed."
The close finished belied what looked like a Lakers blowout from the start.
Forcing the usually careful Spurs into 10 first-half turnovers, the Lakers rolled to a 35-17 lead -- the most points allowed by the Spurs in the first quarter all season.
"It's difficult to spot the best team in the league 18 points and then go play," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "It was a really tough first quarter. They played great and didn't miss many shots. They made shots and we played badly."
Bryant had 14 at the half against defenders ranging from 37-year-old Bruce Bowen to the rookie Hill. Finley kept the Spurs as close as he could, hitting a trio of 3-pointers and scoring 17 in the first half.
San Antonio trailed 78-70 to start the fourth period, but the Lakers couldn't put the Spurs away. Finley's 3-pointer with 10:30 left cut the lead to 81-78, bringing the sold-out crowd to its feet in a game that increasingly seemed to take on a playoff atmosphere.
From his vantage point, Jackson said he didn't feel like the game had playoff intensity. But he was glad to end a three-game road trip with back-to-back wins that started Wednesday in Houston, where the Lakers broke the Rockets' 12-game winning streak at home.
"It salvaged a road trip," Jackson said.
Popovich said before the game he didn't know if Gooden would play, then inserted his new big man for a brief spell in the second half. It was just the third appearance since Jan. 19 for Gooden, who has been hobbled by a groin injury since starting the season in Chicago and then being traded to Sacramento last month.
The Lakers took the season series from the Spurs 2-1. ... Coach Phil Jackson said if Odom feels any guilt for getting suspended for leaving the bench against Portland, he shouldn't. "Those instincts are just sometimes stronger than rationale," Jackson said. "It's just a cockamamie rule. It's a rule has some sense in it, but doesn't stand up all the time. It just doesn't."
Team Stat Comparison
|FGM-FGA||43-83 (.518)||38-73 (.521)|
|3PM-3PA||4-9 (.444)||11-17 (.647)|
|FTM-FTA||12-15 (.800)||8-16 (.500)|
|Fast Break Points||7||9|
|Fouls (Tech/Flagrant)||14 (0/0)||18 (0/0)|