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Kobe Bryant's performance in Lakers' Game 7 win over Boston still a head-scratcher

June 18, 2010 | 10:31 am

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Lakers guard Kobe Bryant walked to the free-throw line, and the usual chants of "MVP!" permeated throughout Staples Center. This routine has become as customary as the arena's Kiss Cam, and it serves as just another sign of how Bryant's playmaking abilities and uber-competitiveness continue to capture Los Angeles.

Yet, this time the chant sounded a tad different. The 18,997 fans at Staples Center who shouted "MVP" on Thursday during Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Celtics sounded more like a shout of encouragement than a shout of conviction. Bryant had largely struggled to find a rhythm throughout much of the game, and the Lakers fans wanted to find a way to help push the sluggish superstar along. If only Bryant realized what was going on before sinking three free throws to cut Boston's lead to one with 8:46 remaining.

"I didn't even hear them," he said. "I was so tired, my ears were ringing."

Perhaps it was ringing because moments before in a timeout, fans chanted "Kobe, Kobe." And if his hearing was bad then, it surely was horrible after his teammates encouraged him after his 17-footer gave the Lakers a four-point lead with 5:22 left, his only shot he made in the fourth quarter.

Yes, it was that kind of night for Bryant. Everything, in a way, worked out with the Lakers' 83-79 victory, which clinched the franchise's 16th NBA championship, secured a second consecutive title and avenged a 2008 Finals loss to the Celtics. Bryant also earned his fifth ring ("Just got one more than Shaq," he said), won his second consecutive Finals MVP award and catapulted himself into a small group of Lakers players who have experienced a Finals win over Boston ("It meant the world to me," he said.)

But it didn't happen the way that most fans expected. Many imagined that Bryant would provide a signature moment in Game 7 and further add to his storied legacy. Instead, his 23 points on six-for-24 shooting nearly cost the Lakers the game and even agitated the most ardent Kobe supporters before making adjustments and grabbing 15 rebounds. Many imagined Bryant would play with the steely composure that he has acquired through seven Finals appearances. Instead, it looked as if he had switched identities with Lakers forward Ron Artest, whose 20 points on seven-for-18 shooting, tough defense on Paul Pierce and calmness proved largely instrumental in the win.

It turns out that Bryant's obsession got the best of him.

"I just wanted it so bad," he said. "I wanted it so, so bad. On top of that, I was on E. Man, I was really, really tired. And the more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me. I'm just glad that my teammates really got us back in the game."

No doubt, Bryant proved instrumental in the fourth quarter by making eight of nine free throws, grabbing four defensive rebounds and hitting a difficult 17-foot fade-away jumper to give the Lakers a 68-64 lead with 5:22 left in the game. But his teammates made more of the significant shots. Guard Derek Fisher hit a crucial three-pointer that tied the score, 64-64, with 6:12 remaining. Forward Pau Gasol made a layup to widen the gap to 76-70 at the 1:30 mark. Artest made a 27-foot three-pointer for a 79-73 lead. And reserve Sasha Vujacic clinched the win with two free throws with 11.7 seconds remaining.

"Obviously, he didn't shoot the ball well," Gasol said of Bryant. "But we all understand we all had the desire to win tonight, badly. And sometimes that's dangerous because it's a double-edged sword there."

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It could have been a sharper sword, because Bryant was about to add a chapter to his legacy that would have said this: He couldn't beat Boston because he tried to do everything on his own and essentially cost the Lakers a game. It's honestly too soon to know whether fans will look back at the 2010 NBA Finals and remember Bryant's poor performance, or if they will just remember that he won a ring against Boston. But it's a safe bet to say he would have been largely held responsible had the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons.

Bryant had put on a stoic game face in the week leading up to the Finals -- as well as during the series -- and had provided clipped answers, even insisting that the rivalry with Boston meant nothing to him. Unsurprisingly, the latter was far from the truth.

"I was just lying to you guys," Bryant said. "When you're in the moment, you have to suppress that because if you get caught up in the hype of it all, you don't really play your best basketball."

But that's exactly what happened. Bryant appeared so fixated with not becoming consumed with Boston that it ultimately consumed him. Rather than allow the passion to spill out, his nerves and excitement burst out as if it had been suppressed in a bottle for far too long.

In all fairness, the Lakers shot poorly in the first half, going 13 for 49 from the field (26.5%). But Bryant's three-for-14 mark represented the most field-goal attempts and clearly showed that he tried to do way too much. That happened when he worked in the post, fought through a double team and shot a jumper that hit the side of the basket. It happened again toward the end of the first quarter when he a jacked a far-corner three-pointer through a double team. That's why Lakers Coach Phil Jackson shared with Bryant at halftime that he played too "animated."

"He's a guy that can try hard and get things accomplished by sheer will," Jackson said. "But this night was not one that he was able to do that on."

It perhaps served fitting that this performance capped off a season in which nothing was easy for Bryant. He spent most of the season fighting through a broken right index finger, back spasms, a sprained left ankle and a swollen right knee. Yet he kept plugging away, showing a willingness to play a facilitating role and picking his spots in the offense. He had his right knee drained and then went on a spree during which he scored at least 30 points in 12 of 13 games.

"It felt good enough to get through the playoffs," Bryant said. "There's some things I'll have to figure out in the off-season, but it was good enough to get through this one."

Just as he had during the season, he met obstacles in Game 7 but made adjustments just in time. Bryant's 15 rebounds significantly contributed to the Lakers' 53-40 advantage on the glass and continued a story line in which the team that got the most rebounds in this series won the game. He displayed trust in Artest by passing him the ball for his late-game three-pointer. And he admitted his faulty game afterward and thanked his teammates for bailing him out.

"He also stuck with it and played excellent down the stretch," Gasol said. He made huge free throws, made huge buckets and that's why he's the MVP and probably the best player in the world." 

-- Mark Medina
twitter.com/latmedina

E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant runs the length of the court to join his teammates for a celebration after defeating Paul Pierce (34) and the Boston Celtics, 83-79, on Thursday night in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Bryant powers his way to a layup past Celtics guard Ray Allen in the first half of Game 7. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.


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