With 5 minutes 48 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 1 last night, Kobe Bryant reentered after sitting on the bench for nearly three minutes. The Lakers trailed. Bryant had yet to make a statement offensively, though he had taken twice as many shots as any teammate. For good reason, fans at TD Banknorth Garden sat uneasily in their expensive playoff seats.
It seemed a moment made for the newly anointed MVP. The perfect setup for a player who thrives with the game on the line. The kind of opportunity that fuels Bryant and his relentless competitive drive. But there would be no dramatic comeback sparked by Bryant. The Celtics defeated the Lakers, 98-88, proving they could contain Bryant by throwing a number of defenders at the superstar who owns two scoring titles.
"I had some great looks that just didn't stay down," said Bryant. "It was just pile it in with the other bad shooting games I've had. Flush it. And come back in Game 2 and, hopefully, I get those same looks in Game 2.
"I just missed some bunnies. I just missed some really, really good looks. I'll be thinking about those a little bit tonight."
There are not many games with which Bryant can pile last night's substandard performance. In marked contrast to his memorable, high-production fourth quarters of the past, Bryant went 1 for 6 for 4 points in the final period. There was little of his trademark dazzle and dominance. And as Bryant went, so went the Lakers. The Celtics led the entire fourth as the Lakers struggled to make open shots. Bryant finished with 24 points (9 for 26) and six assists.
When asked to assess Bryant's game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "I think he thought he was shooting the ball pretty well. They just didn't stay in. A lot of them rattled out. I said to him, 'Check it out.' He had some guys open in other parts of the offense, but he had some good looks. You live on that. That's going to happen."
Added Lamar Odom (14 points, six rebounds), "Kobe's never uncomfortable. He can hit shots from anywhere, with anyone on him. We just have to do a better job of rebounding and scrapping and getting those loose balls."
Most of the shots Bryant missed were midrange jumpers. He didn't drive to the basket much and attempted only six free throws.
"We'll spread them out by getting in transition and moving the ball and see if we can get some cuts going to the hoop," said Bryant. "They're going to be determined and not let me get to the paint, particularly in the half-court. Those little midrange jumpers that I get, I've got to knock those in."
Bryant also saw room for improvement in the Lakers' overall offensive execution, especially the lack of good ball movement. With Bryant struggling, the Lakers shot 41.6 percent. More significantly, the Lakers scored just 37 points in the second half on 33 percent shooting.
"We got a little stagnant. I think our rhythm wasn't there, wasn't what we like it to be," said Bryant. "Still, we played well enough to almost steal the game. Some balls bounced their way tonight. They scrapped and they clawed their way to victory. They played a lot more physical than we did, and I think it's something we have to adjust to and get ready for in Game 2."
The Lakers will be counting on Bryant to get things moving in Game 2. They cannot afford to have their leader failing to capitalize on good looks. If anything, Bryant's teammates know last night's missed opportunities will fuel his performance Sunday night."They're not going to give him much of an opportunity to break down their defense off of dribble penetration," said Lakers point guard Derek Fisher. "He's going to end up in a situation where he's taking more catch-and-shoot opportunities when he's coming off screens. That's something he's going to get used to as the series goes on.
"As the series goes on, he'll understand where his shots are going to come from and what spots. And I think he'll shoot the ball at a higher percentage that he did tonight."