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Vintage Kobe performance tops Bobcats

Kobe Bryant was a predator just like in the old days Saturday night, and the Charlotte Bobcats became his prey.

The Los Angeles Lakers outscored Charlotte 9-0 in the game’s last 2:50, and Kobe’s vintage performance meant he had a hand in all of it. The Lakers won 88-85, the first L.A. win since Kobe came back four games ago from tearing his Achilles tendon in April.

This was the kind of thing one of the NBA’s ultimate alpha males had missed most, silencing a crowd in hostile territory. Well, semi-hostile at least. A fourth of the Time Warner Cable home crowd of 17,101 wore No.24 jerseys.

“You always miss those moments. particularly on the road,” Kobe said grinned afterward. “It’s always fun to close a team out down the stretch.”

At 35, Kobe is no longer as ridiculously talented as he once was and no longer draws quite the same crowd – the game didn’t sell out. But he still had plenty down in the stretch in an active game where he played 32 minutes, scored 21 points and had eight assists, seven rebounds and seven turnovers.

Several of those turnovers Kobe blamed – with a tight smile – on teammate Pau Gasol. “Don’t even get me started on that stuff,” Kobe said. “I gave him (Gasol) a little bit of a hard time. I can’t throw him the ball if he ain’t got no thumbs.”

Down 85-82 with 1:22 to go, Kobe slashed toward the basket and went to his left hand for a difficult layup in traffic.

“Tonight, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to drive to the basket and finish with my left,” he recounted later. “I said, ‘What the heck, I might as well try it.’”

Then Kobe got an overanxious Gerald Henderson in the air with 37 seconds left, drew a shooting foul and swished the two free throws to give the Lakers an 86-85 lead. On Ben Gordon’s last-ditch three with 2.5 seconds left that could have sent it to overtime, Kobe played such Velcro defense that Gordon’s prayer had absolutely no chance.

“Obviously, he’s hunting for the three,” Kobe said of Gordon. “I just tried to use my size, stay on top of him and not give him any airspace.”

All of that meant the Bobcats – who have had similar near-misses against quality opponents like Miami, Indiana and Dallas in the past two weeks – lost another close one to a big-time foe. Charlotte (10-14) is no longer a bad team and could well make the playoffs in the diminished Eastern Conference. But the Bobcats still don’t have anyone like Kobe. Never have.

Down 86-85, the Bobcats worked hard to get the ball to big man Al Jefferson, but he missed a six-footer badly. The Lakers, on the other hand, just made sure the ball was in Kobe’s hands for all the key possessions down the stretch.

“The easier thing, obviously, is to have Kobe,” Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said.

Playing a lot of point guard by necessity, Kobe took 15 shots and passed up at least that many.

It was nothing like the most electrifying game Kobe ever played in Charlotte. Seven years ago, he took 45 shots and scored 58 points in a remarkable triple overtime game that the Bobcats ultimately won.

Long before that, of course, in 1996, Kobe was a Charlotte Hornet for about five minutes on draft night before a pre-arranged deal sent him to L.A. and gave the Hornets the immortal Vlade Divac.

That was all long ago. But Kobe showed Saturday night he still has currency.

His goals, however, seem outlandishly high for the 11-12 Lakers. “I want to win a championship,” he said. “I want to be playing in June.”

But when it’s Kobe, as Bobcat fans were reminded Saturday night, it’s always possible.