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Updated: January 29th, 2012 11:26pm
Zulgad: Kobe Bryant provides reminder he is NBA's best in the clutch

Zulgad: Kobe Bryant provides reminder he is NBA's best in the clutch

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - The Los Angeles Lakers arrived at Target Center on Sunday night with a 1-7 road record, giving them the worst winning percentage away from home of any NBA team.

The Lakers had suffered a 100-89 defeat against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night at the Bradley Center and were 2-point underdogs against a Minnesota Timberwolves team that had pulled to 9-10 with a two-game winning streak.

This was a game the Wolves had to look at as being extremely winnable.

Right?

"The whole year we felt like every time we step out there on the floor we have a chance to win and feel like we should win," Wolves forward Kevin Love said. "That's kind of been our mindset, and we knew they were going to be a tough team because they just got beat. They were hungry. You could see that in Kobe, you could see that in Bynum, you could see that in Gasol. They all had pretty good games."

Andrew Bynum (21 points and seven rebounds) and Pau Gasol (28 points and six rebounds) did have pretty good games.

But Love probably sold Kobe Bryant a bit short with that statement.

For lack of a better explanation, Kobe was Kobe. One of the NBA's most talented players who seems to posses ice water in his veins when the game hangs in the balance.

The result was the Lakers got their second road win of the season, beating the Wolves 106-101 before an announced crowd of 17,551 that could have slept through the first half but saw an entertaining final 24 minutes.

The victory increased the Lakers' winning streak against the Wolves to 16 games with three more meetings left between the teams this season.

Bryant finished with 35 points, hitting 14 of 29 shots, 14 rebounds, including 11 off the defensive glass, and two assists. It was Bryant's second double-double of the season and during the game he passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most field goals made in Los Angeles Lakers franchise history (9,936).

You can recite Bryant's statistical accomplishments all you want, but it doesn't really do his performance justice. You have to witness him making crucial shots and never being afraid to take them - yes, that's a shot at LeBron James - when his team needs him most.

"Kobe was Kobe," Love said. "He hit big shots. There's no getting past that. Maybe three or four times he hit it right in my face. I had a hand up and slapped his hand, but seemingly hit shots over and over. That's why he's the best player in the game. He hit a lot of big shots tonight."

The Lakers never should have put themselves in position to be in such a close game. The Wolves got off to another one of their far too customary slow starts and trailed 53-45 at halftime.

Los Angeles' lead would grow to 18 points with five minutes left in the third quarter but the Wolves switched to a zone defense, Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph started contributing and the home team closed the third on a 14-2 run.

That cut the Lakers advantage to 79-74 and the Wolves would grab a 91-89 lead with 5 minutes, 9 seconds left in the fourth quarter on a Beasley tip-in. The score would go back-and-forth, with the Wolves taking their final lead of the night with 3:19 left when Martell Webster's three-pointer put them up by one.

Bryant had scored five points in the first quarter, eight in the second and 13 in the third. He then made four of his five shots in the final quarter, scoring nine points and pulling down five rebounds. Both totals led the Lakers in the final 12 minutes.

"We needed to get a win on the road," Bryant told reporters in a massive understatement.

Bryant's play said far more.

In his 16th NBA season, the 34-year-old put on a clinic that left rookie guard Ricky Rubio both dejected and thoroughly impressed. This was Rubio's first up-close look at Bryant.

"I don't know if he's the best one or not but in the last quarter for sure," said Rubio, who finished with five points (2-for-13 shooting) and a modest (for him) eight assists. "Maybe during 48 minutes, there are players like LeBron and Derrick Rose who can be in that top position, but at the end of the game, he's the best. ... No matter what we did, he was scoring. He was a scoring machine in the last quarter."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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