Kobe Bryant's back was back to 100 percent in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals on Friday, and the timing couldn't have been worse for the Utah Jazz.
Bryant got the Lakers off to a stunning start, as he scored 10 points in the first quarter and helped Los Angeles build a 16-point lead less than 10 minutes into its series-clinching 108-105 victory. When the Jazz were making a threatening run in the fourth quarter, he squashed it with a 3-pointer and a three-point play on back-to-back possessions.
"We went to the black mamba," said Bryant, referring to one of his nicknames. "I just had to take advantage of the opportunities. It's my responsibility to this ball club to make plays, make buckets when we need them."
It's questionable whether or not he would have made them if his back hadn't been at 100 percent. Bryant obviously wasn't himself for much of Game 4 of the series, and he didn't have to carry the Lakers to a victory in Game 5. His teammates sorely needed him down the stretch in Game 6 and he gave them a lift.
"I felt normal, 100 percent," Bryant said. "The staff did a great job getting me ready."
The Lakers' medical staff must have worked their magic on the entire roster. Los Angeles never trailed in Game 6, scored the game's first seven points, and had a 30-14 lead in the first quarter.
"We had great ball movement, and we did the little things early in the ball game to get momentum," said coach Phil Jackson. "We were relaxed, we moved it around. Everybody had a part in it. Defensively, we were good in the first eight minutes."
The Lakers became just the second team in either the Western Conference semifinals or Eastern Conference semifinals to win a road game. Without their hot start, it's doubtful they would have joined the Pistons as the only teams to win on the road in this round of the playoffs.
"When you play here, you have to have a cushion," Bryant said. "They'll find a way to scrap, claw, and get back into the game. You have to be able to weather the storm when it comes."
Utah's first storm in the fourth quarter came when it got within seven points. Bryant's 3-pointer over Matt Harpring with 4:55 left in the game gave the Lakers a 96-86 lead. He then converted a three-point play with 4:21 remaining to put Los Angeles comfortably up by 13. He finished with 34 points and eight rebounds.
The Lakers had to hold their breath when the Jazz had chances to tie the game in the final seconds. Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams each missed 3-pointers that would have sent the game into overtime.
Derek Fisher said his team's late near-collapse doesn't concern him. The fact that the Lakers are moving on, and that they won in an incredibly difficult environment is what he'll take from Friday's game.
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