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LAKERS 99, MEMPHIS 98

Kobe Bryant is back, and it shows

He scores 32 points and makes the winning three-pointer with 4.3 seconds left in his first game since Feb. 5.

February 24, 2010|By Mike Bresnahan

Reporting from Memphis, Tenn. — Kobe Bryant made a point of finding every teammate after the game and embracing them, even thanking them.

He was indisputably back, making another mark on another 48 minutes of Lakers basketball.

He hadn't played a game in 18 days, but there he was Tuesday, the ball in his hands and the game clock almost drained to zeros.

So he did it again, drilling a three-pointer with 4.3 seconds left that ultimately dropped the Memphis Grizzlies, 99-98, at FedEx Forum.

It was met with sarcasm.

"He's lucky," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said dryly. "Very, very lucky."

It was greeted with wonderment.

"He really stepped up at the end of the game," Pau Gasol said, "like he was never out."

And it was surrounded by questions.

"I lost it a little bit," he said, leading to a few confused looks from media members.

He didn't look like he had lost anything in his return, other than a couple of bad passes.

"My off hand lost the ball a little bit and I had to gather it a little bit," he said.

Thanks for the clarification.

Bryant had 32 points, seven rebounds and six assists in his first game back from a sore left ankle that sidelined him for five games.

His shot stood up as a game-winner after O.J. Mayo's 20-footer from the right side was long as time expired.

It also rescued the Lakers from a ragged middle two quarters in which they were outscored, 65-49, and a herky-jerky fourth quarter in which they missed five of seven free throws down the stretch.

"Every time it just feels like the first time," Bryant said. "It truly does. It's a great feeling. It's always brand new."

Bryant had been in a good mood all day, returning to the lineup after the Lakers went 4-1 without him.

He was ebullient enough to take part in a halfcourt shooting contest at the end of the morning shoot-around, the first time in recent memory he joined a handful of regulars for the 10-minute event (won by Jordan Farmar, as usual).

Bryant also made his 1,000th regular-season game meaningful, making a concise 13 of 19 shots, three of four from three-point range. He had three steals and two turnovers.

"He made some passes that were unusually awry that I think caught guys by surprise," Jackson said. "Otherwise I thought he was great."

Despite missing a slew of free throws in the final five minutes (three by Gasol and two by Derek Fisher), the Lakers had a chance when Mayo missed a pair from the line with 18.8 seconds left and the Grizzlies up by two.

Bryant's first attempt after that, a runner down the right side, was blocked out of bounds with 8.8 seconds left. After a timeout, the ball was worked inside to Gasol, who kicked it out to Lamar Odom, who swung the ball to the right side, where Bryant lurked beyond the three-point line.

"I think nobody in the world's shocked anymore what Kobe Bryant does on the floor and what he brings to the table," said Gasol, who had 22 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. "It feels good to have him back, doing what he does."

Afterward, Bryant said his ankle, weakened in recent weeks by a sprain and strained tendon, felt "pretty good."

His first points came when he pump-faked, made a three-pointer and drew a foul on Mayo, leading to a four-point play. He also erased Mayo on a three-on-one fastbreak by faking a pass and scoring easily in the vacated lane. For added measure, he had a couple of breakaway dunks.

Three weeks ago, Artest missed a three-pointer at the buzzer in the Lakers' 95-93 loss here.

Bryant created a different ending this time, one that could be topped only one other place.

"Only [in] Hollywood," he said.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

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