Kobe Bryant is probably the best player on the floor in the NBA Finals, but when the Lakers' All-Star guard repeatedly misses the mark, as he did in the Celtics' victory in Game 1 Thursday night, his team is in trouble.
It's happened before. In both regular-season games against the Celtics, both Lakers' losses, Bryant had subpar games, shooting 9 for 21 from the field Nov. 23, and 6 for 25 Dec. 30 for a .326 shooting percent. His percentage for the regular season was .459.
Thursday night, he shot 9 of 26, missing four of his first five jumpers, all wide-open shots where he seemed to have plenty of time. "I just missed some bunnies," Bryant said Thursday night.
The Lakers can't have another Elmer Fudd performance from their star. He needs to get the bunnies.
"His shot just wasn't falling for him," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, while also crediting the Celtics' defense.
"It certainly has something to do with it," Jackson said. "The defense is there. He didn't get to the basket, he didn't get to the foul line. Foul shots are really important for scoring, and again, they eliminated a lot of his ability to get to the foul line. So there's some things they did very well.
"But as we all saw, there was a lot of shots there that just didn't go down for him that were in and out."
The Celtics went after Bryant with a rotating cast of defenders: Ray Allen, James Posey, and Paul Pierce took shifts getting in Bryant's face. Coach Doc Rivers said it was just typical Celtic defense.
"We really don't change a lot [for Bryant]," said Rivers. "We're just a solid defensive team. We're a help defensive team. We try to load the ball. Clearly we have special players we give more attention to.
"But it's not just Kobe. We want to keep everybody out of the paint, with a bigger emphasis on Kobe."
Bryant said it didn't matter which player was defending him, essentially placing the blame on himself.
"Their principles are the same," he said yesterday after practice at TD Banknorth Garden. "They just want to contest shots. If I go up and shoot, just get a hand in the face. I've just got to put the ball in the damn hole. That sucker didn't want to stay down last game."
Bryant acknowledged the Celtics might have had his number. Or chased away his bunnies.
"[They're] just making me a perimeter player, in terms of being able to shoot the ball," he said. "Two games we played in the regular season, I shot the ball atrociously. In Game 1, I shot the ball bad, too. Hopefully, it just means I'm due."
Posey, on the other hand, said it was the Celtics' defense bedeviling Bryant.
"I think it's our team's commitment," he said. "We're very relentless. We take it as a challenge, it's a pride thing with us."
Bryant is the sun the Lakers' offense revolves around, and the team needs to make adjustments for Game 2 to ignite its offense. Bryant insisted he wouldn't pass up those 15-20 jumpers, those bunnies, in Game 2. The only thing he expects to adjust is his aim.
"I would never be bashful, you know that," he said. "I get those looks again, I'm foaming at the mouth. I want those looks again."
Jackson wants the rest of the team to do a lot better at rebounding.
"There's some things to learn obviously and some mistakes to eliminate, but we tried to do what we had to do," he said. "The only other problem with our defense is the offensive boards and we gave up second-chance opportunities."
So until Game 2, there's no way to know if Bryant's bad bunnies were the result of poor shooting or a disruptive defense.
"It was a little bit of both, I think," said Celtics sub P.J. Brown, a 15-year veteran. "I thought Posey and Pierce and Ray, I think they all did a great job."
"One thing about a guy like [Bryant], you know he's going to come with everything he has. You can't expect him to have two bad nights in a row, but we'll expect our defense to challenge. We're going to try to continue to pressure him and keep a hand in his face and we'll see what happens."
Barbara Matson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.