The NBA postseason starts in less than two months, but Sunday afternoon’s game at American Airlines Center between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers had a playoff feel to it.
Meanwhile, if the Mavs don’t start playing with a much better sense of urgency than they did against the Lakers, they’ll be at home watching the playoffs this season for the first time since 2000.
Kobe Bryant turned back the clock and looked like the NBA’s best player again on Sunday as he had 38 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists to guide the Lakers to a 103-99 triumph over the Mavs.
The loss had a devastating impact on the Mavs (25-30), who are two games behind the Lakers (28-29) as both teams are trying to catch the Houston Rockets (31-27) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
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On Sunday, the Mavs just didn’t close the deal, and Bryant was the reason why. The 17-year veteran made 13 of 21 shots and also made 4 of 5 3-pointers as he dazzled the sellout crowd of 20,440 with an assortment of long-range baskets with defenders closely guarding him.
Bryant scored seven straight points early in the fourth quarter with rookie Jae Crowder draped all over him. And he also hit a pair of late jumpers with Vince Carter right in his lap.
“He hit some difficult shots,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s tough when he has it going like that.”
No jumper was bigger than the 20-footer Bryant hit as Carter flew right past him. That critical bucket put the Lakers up 101-97 with just 46.9 seconds to go, and left the Mavs realizing the complexities in trying to contain a player of Bryant’s talent.
“I just tried to make it difficult as possible before the shot and let him know I was there, but he had it going,” Crowder said. “He hit some tough shots, and so that was frustrating.
“You give him your best shot and he’s giving you his best offensive moves, and it felt like it was pretty good D. But the shot goes in, so it’s pretty tough on the defensive end.”
Despite Bryant’s exploits, the Mavs still had chances to pull into a virtual tie with the Lakers for the ninth spot in the West. But a lack of late-game execution again became their downfall.
Dirk Nowitzki, who scored a season-high 30 points and collected a season-high 13 rebounds, scored to get the Mavs within 101-99 with 26.3 seconds to go. Metta World Peace then split a pair of free throws, leaving the Mavs only down 102-99 with 16.8 seconds left.
But after the ball ended up rolling around on the floor during a Mavs possession, O.J. Mayo missed a tough 3-pointer from the left corner that would have tied the game with 4.9 seconds remaining. Bryant grabbed the rebound, and then closed the scoring when he made 1 of 2 free throws.
“It’s the theme of the year,” said Nowitzki, who was 11-of-19 from the field. “We’re always right there with some of those games and we can never pull them off, and if you want to be a playoff team you’ve got to find a way to win at least half of them.
“This is another game that we needed to have against a team that’s right there with us in the hunt, and it’s just not good enough.”
Elton Brand, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds while helping hold Dwight Howard to nine points, shared the same sentiment as Nowitzki. That is, losses to teams right in the Mavs’ playoff path cost double.
“It’s like a two-game swing,” Brand said. “With so much at stake, it’s definitely a missed opportunity.
“We still have time mathematically. It’s just a disheartening loss, another close tough loss that we let slip away again.”