Los Angeles » With the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in danger of losing Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal on Sunday, they turned to Kobe Bryant.
He tuned out the Utah Jazz.
Hours after it was announced he finished third in the 2010 Most Valuable Player voting behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Bryant certainly played like an MVP.
He scored 31 points on 12-for-19 shooting and almost single-handedly stopped the Jazz from stealing the opening game in this best-of-seven series.
What did Jazz point guard Deron Williams think was the difference in the game?
"Kobe hit some unbelievable shots," he said. "That's about it.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan agreed, saying, "Kobe, obviously, finished us off down the stretch."
Bryant scored 13 of the Lakers' final 19 points. His three-point play with 3:16 remaining gave L.A. a 95-94 lead.
"We put ourselves in a bit of a hole in the fourth quarter," Bryant said. "At that point, we had to buckle down [because] it's tough to change momentum when it's that late in the game."
Pau Gasol thought the key to the Lakers' victory was their late-game defense.
Utah managed only six points and one basket in the final 4:10.
"You've got to come out with defensive stops," he said. "It's as simple as that. If you don't come up with them, you lose."
Asked about the Lakers' ability to wipe out a 93-89 deficit, Luke Walton also talked about defense.
"That's what championship teams do -- lock down when they have to," he said. "Obviously we would like to lock down the whole game ... but we started to really get some stops in those three of four minutes."
Part of the Lakers' ability to shut down Utah might be connected to the fact this is the third straight year the teams have met in the playoffs.
"They know what we are doing [and] we know exactly what they are doing," Walton said. "In the end, it comes down to who wants it more and who executes better. There are no secrets. No secret plays. ... We know them as well as we know any team in the NBA."
The Jazz also know the Lakers turn to Bryant at crunch time and, against them, he once again delivered.
"It's always nice having the best closer in the game on your side," Walton said. "You don't want to put yourself in the position in needing him to close, but he's going to be there when you need him."
In the Lakers' six-game win over Durant and Oklahoma City in the opening round, Bryant was hardly Kobe-like.
He averaged 23.5 points, but he shot only 41 percent from the field.
It looked like a season loaded with nagging injuries might be slowing him down.
Then, Bryant unleashed a 32-point performance in the Lakers' close-out win over the Thunder, which was followed by his late-game heroics against the Jazz.
So much for those injuries.
"I was able to move around pretty well [in Game 1]," Bryant said. "... It's encouraging for me to move around and do what I want to be able to do."
Encouraging for the Lakers.
Discouraging for the Jazz.
Lakers propped up by Bryant, defense