Normally, when the words "Lakers" and "clutch" are mentioned together in the same sentence, the picture that comes to mind is Kobe Bryant. The image one doesn't usually expect is Dwight Howard at the free-throw line.
But there Howard stood, a 48 percent free-throw shooter, staring down at the ball in his hands following a late rebound and his first failed free-throw attempt. With 4.1 seconds left in the game, and the Lakers only up by one point Friday night, Howard looked up at the basket, took a deep breath, and released the ball.
And he drained it.
Following a Grizzlies timeout, Memphis forward Tayshaun Prince inbounded the ball to Mike Conley, who turned to face a defending Steve Blake. Conley glided a step to the left before crossing back to his right, accelerated into the open lane and drove straight to the basket to float a shot over a leaping Howard.
It fell just short, and the Lakers topped the Grizzlies 86-84.
The win was big for Los Angeles, which leads the Jazz by a half game for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
From the opening tip the Lakers appeared in control. Pau Gasol started 3-of-3 from the field for six points, and Bryant had nine points and four assists early on.
That control didn't last long, however, as Memphis forced 10 turnovers, and quickly scored 10 fast-break points to cut a Lakers' 13-point lead down to four.
At the start of the second half, Memphis came out with a defensive effort that kept it close. The Grizzlies' forced three quick turnovers and the momentum began to shift their way with a 15-1 run.
Mike Conley caused the most trouble for the Lakers by constantly attacking the rim, and Steve Blake had trouble matching his lightning-quick speed. His constant penetration took pressure off of his teammates and allowed them to make plays.
Bryant and Gasol responded by leading the Lakers to a 16-4 run which put the Lakers back up by five. Although the Lakers continued to score effectively, Memphis matched their effort by forcing 18 turnovers on the night.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Lakers down one, Bryant found Gasol in the lane for layup which put L.A. back up by a point.
"You've seen us run it over the years," Bryant told ESPN LA following the game, "It really is unstoppable."
The teams traded misses until the final 10 seconds, when Conley's miss on a step-back jumper led to a Howard rebound and he was immediately fouled. That's when Howard sunk the clutch free throw and sealed the two-point win.
Bryant noted Howard's improved free-throw shooting of late.
"I think he's very confident with shooting his free-throws now." Bryant told Time Warner Cable Sportsnet's reporter Mike Trudell. "When he steps up there, he believes he's gonna make 'em, and I think that's the big difference."
Conley led the Grizzlies with 21 points and six assists, and Marc Gasol chipped in with 11 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
"We executed like we were supposed to and tried to get a shot up," Conley told ESPN. "We tried to get some penetration and see what we can make out of it, but it just didn't work out."
Grizzlies' coach Lionel Hollins noted that it was the 'hustle plays' down the stretch that hurt Memphis the most.
"We just didn't get a loose ball or rebound that we needed in the whole game," he told ESPN, "especially late in the fourth quarter."
For the Lakers, Bryant dropped 24 points, dished out nine assists and grabbed five rebounds. Pau Gasol had 19 points and nine rebounds.
"I don't want to be on the Laker team that didn't make the playoffs," first-year Lakers forward Earl Clark, who finished with 13 points, told ESPN. "I don't want to be remembered that way, so I'm just coming out and giving it my all."Comment on this story
While giving his team some credit for the win, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni made it clear that there was room for improvement.
"A great win, good win," he told the L.A. Times. "We'll go on now. We're not out of the woods at all."
The Lakers' next game is Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers (50-26).
For additional Lakers and NBA updates, you can follow Mitch Kunzler on Twitter at: @MitchKunzler