CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For two quarters, one of the three men in NBA history to score more points than Kobe Bryant watched from a courtside seat. By halftime, Michael Jordan had apparently seen enough, and the Charlotte Bobcats owner disappeared deep into Time Warner Cable Arena.
For Bryant, playing in front of Jordan no longer carries much of a thrill -- "No, I'm past that," he said -- but it was in His Airness's building Saturday that Bryant finally began to show signs that he could return to the player who once drew frequent comparisons to Jordan.
The Lakers defeated the Bobcats, 88-85, as Bryant scored the go-ahead points and then played shut-down defense on the three-point attempt that would have sent the game to overtime. Four games into his 18th NBA season -- one which many once feared would never get played because of a ruptured Achilles' tendon -- Bryant finally helped the Lakers (11-12) win a game.
"You always miss those moments, particularly on the road," Bryant said. "It's always fun to close a team out down the stretch."
Bryant finished with 21 points -- moving him 642 from Jordan's 31,650 career points -- seven rebounds and eight assists in a season-high 32 minutes, a performance that somewhat forgave his seven turnovers.
It was a win that seemed unattainable when the Bobcats (10-14) led, 83-77, with four minutes remaining. The Lakers were finding it impossible to stop Kemba Walker, who made 10 of his first 11 shots and finished with a game-high 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting.
But Bryant, as he did so many times in the weeks before rupturing his Achilles' eight months ago -- including once in Charlotte -- shouldered the load for the Lakers. It was a performance less heroic than some others, given strong nights from Jordan Hill (15 points, nine rebounds), Pau Gasol (15 points, four blocks).
Bryant's brightest moment came with 1:22 remaining when he drove baseline and scored with his left hand to pull the Lakers to 85-84. Fifty seconds later, he made the go-ahead free throws.
For Bryant, four games back have been an experimental process, as he learns what his body can and cannot do.
"I wasn't sure if I would be able to drive to the basket and finish with my left, but I said, 'What the heck, I'm going to try it' and it worked out," he said. "So now you know next game you can do it. Every game has been has been like that, it's kind of been chipping away at it."
It was, in a lot of ways, an upside-down night for the Lakers. Three-point shots were not falling, the bench was only moderately effective, and the usually sure-handed Pau Gasol joined Bryant in the turnovers game, committing six.
"I gave him a little bit of a hard time in the locker room," Bryant said. "I can't throw him the ball if he ain't got no thumbs."
However, Gasol came up just as big in the final minute as did Bryant. He made two free throws with 6.2 seconds left. Then, after Bryant harassed Ben Gordon into shooting a 3-pointer well off target, Gasol cleanly blocked Charlotte center Al Jefferson's putback attempt.
"He was tired as I was," Gasol said of Jefferson, who scored 14 points. "It was tough down the stretch, but I was glad I was able to step it up defensively and make those plays."
Saturday's game marked the first matchup between D'Antoni and Steve Clifford, an inherited assistant when D'Antoni replaced Mike Brown as Lakers coach last season.
For D'Antoni, it's not a surprise that Clifford has the historically woeful Bobcats trending upward.
"It hurt us when he left," D'Antoni said. "It was kind of a little surprising that he got the job. I was hoping he didn't get it, for my selfish reasons. But no, I'm really happy for him."
Clifford has the Bobcats well on pace for improvement from last year, when the they finished 21-61, resulting in Mike Dunlap's firing.
Gasol, D'Antoni calm
As Gasol's complaints about not getting the ball where he wants it led to speculation that he could be on the trading block, both he and D'Antoni tried to downplay any conflict.
"There's a lot of things that go into this game psychologically," D'Antoni said, "and sometimes it takes an airing out and it's good."
Asked if he and D'Antoni had, in fact, aired out any disagreements, Gasol responded in the negative.
"We talk," Gasol said, "but nothing serious or anything like that. Just talking: 'Hello.' 'Hi, how are you doing?' 'Good job.' 'Pick it up.'"
(c)2013 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services