LOS ANGELES -- On the last two occasions when Kobe Bryant stepped to the free- throw line in the fourth quarter, looking to increase the Lakers’ late-game lead, Gerald Wallace made sure he had a confab with the superstar.
“I was trying to get him to close his eyes,” the Nets forward said, “and shoot them.”
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Bryant was game, though it was going to be a stiff cost.
“I had to make a big bet,” Wallace said. “So, I just told him go shoot the free throws.”
Bryant sank eight of 10 free throws in the final quarter, but it was equal parts of his usual fourth-quarter heroics and the Nets’ futile shooting down the stretch that led to Brooklyn’s 95-90 loss before a sellout crowd of 18,997 at the Staples Center Tuesday night in Mike D’Antoni’s Lakers’ coaching debut.
The Nets (6-3) were searching for some more validation, hoping to legitimize their five-game winning streak. But they were done in by a rough stretch in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, getting outscored 17-6 in the final 5:22 after holding an 84-78 lead.
“I think we were right there,” Deron Williams said. “We just missed some shots . . . We just didn’t make shots.”
Joe Johnson missed a team-high four shots in the quarter, during which the Nets made only 7 of 20 attempts. However, it’s not as if the Lakers (6-5) were much better from the floor, clanking all but three of 12 shots.
“Down the stretch, we just didn’t come up with the big plays that we normally make in tight games like this,” Johnson said. “I put a lot of this on myself, who missed a lot of easy shots down the stretch that I normally make. I knew it was going to come down to it and I focused in. But we just didn’t make a lot of those shots that we normally make.”
With 4.8 seconds left and the Lakers up 93-90 after a pair of Bryant free throws, Williams missed a three-pointer that could have tied it, watching it bounce off the front rim. Bryant swished two more free throws with 0.2 seconds remaining for the final margin.
“I got a pretty clean look,” Williams said. “It was contested and we didn’t have any timeouts. I really couldn’t have taken another dribble because there was nowhere to go because I caught it so close to the sideline. I had a good look at it. It looked good when I shot it. It just didn’t go in.”
Brook Lopez, matched up against Dwight Howard — the same guy he could’ve been traded for — had 23 points and seven rebounds. Williams added 22 points, 10 assists and four rebounds, and didn’t have a turnover. Wallace totaled seven points, five steals, three blocks and two assists.
Bryant finished with 25 points. Howard had 23 points and 15 rebounds, but he bricked five consecutive free throws in the fourth quarter and seven of nine overall — one miss was an air ball. The crowd tried to will him on every time he stepped to the line and Nets coach Avery Johnson elected to start fouling him on purpose with just over five minutes left. That strategy stopped working when Bryant tried to shoot the ball a few times as he saw the Nets readying to employ the Hack-A-Dwight.
The Nets talked a lot about the need to come out and play with intensity from the opening tip, understanding that falling into a cavernous hole in this building wouldn’t be a good thing. For a while, it looked as if that was nothing but lip service, given that the Nets seemed to be walking in quicksand for the game’s initial 3:34.
They missed their first five shots, turning the ball over four times and watching the Lakers grab a 10-0 lead before Johnson called a timeout. Lopez spearheaded the charge back, though, canning a pair of shots to jump start an 8-0 run that got the Nets right back in it.
The Nets had assists on 11 of their first 16 field goals, sharing the ball effectively. They took their first lead of the game when Johnson swished a three-pointer from the left side with 8:11 left in the first half, and led by four points on three occasions in the quarter before taking a 57-56 lead into the break.
“I’m proud of our guys tonight,” Avery Johnson said. “We fought through a lot of adversity in so many different ways. We got off to a tough start, a slow start and we finally got back to playing our style of basketball, playing our tempo. But I’m proud of our guys. We’re not searching for moral victories, but I’m proud of our guys.”
Wallace had a different take.
“I think this was a game that we easily could’ve won,” he said. “This was a game that we were supposed to win. We fought all the way to the end. We had ourselves a great opportunity to win and the ball didn’t go our way.”