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They’re getting a handle on Bryant

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 11, 2010

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It was the fourth quarter. Kobe time. Ron Artest dribbled in front of the Celtics’ bench and Kobe Bryant created a few inches of space between Tony Allen for a pass and an opportunity to go to work.

Artest, slow to react, missed the window, and Bryant stared back in anger. The next possession, Artest did it again, and Bryant was livid. Twice during the crucial final quarter, Bryant couldn’t get the ball at his preferred time, at his preferred spot, and it’s been a trend the entire NBA Finals.

Bryant nearly found a way to carry the Lakers to victory last night, using long, contested 3-pointers as his weapon, but it wasn’t his preferred weapon. Bryant, of course, would rather dash to the basket for acrobatic layups, or drive, stop, and lean back for fadeaways.

The Celtics have to allow Kobe to score; they have no choice because he remains unstoppable. But they are using stifling defense to force Bryant into an uncomfortable zone. He looks irritated. He looks frustrated, just as he was when Artest missed his pass two consecutive times.

Bryant scored 33 points in the Celtics’ 96-89 Game 4 victory, but 18 came on 3-pointers. Bryant converted no layups; his closest field goal was from 9 feet. He is not creating baskets with his quickness and array of moves. The Celtics are sending two defenders at him and he is attempting shots in those small windows, such as the ones Artest missed in the second half.

Containing Bryant has been critical to the Celtics’ success. He is averaging 28.2 points for the series, but also 23.2 shots. A veteran whose dominance could be waning having to work feverishly to score.

And because the Lakers have lacked dependable secondary scorers, Phil Jackson has had to play Bryant heavy minutes, and that could be the difference in the final three games of this series. Bryant has played more than 40 minutes in 13 of 20 games this postseason.

“He was tired,’’ Jackson said. “You know, physically I thought he had to work too hard in the course of the game, and he couldn’t finish it out the way he wanted to finish it out. That’s part of what happened. I thought the matchups in the game kind of dictated those terms, and we’ll have to do something different the next game to get him off the floor and keep him ready for that fourth quarter.’’

What Doc Rivers has done the past three games is replace Ray Allen as Bryant’s primary defender with Tony Allen in the second half. Tony Allen is a more athletic and physical defender and matches Bryant’s deceptive strength. There are defensive aces in the past who have been called “Kobe stoppers’’ and Bryant responded by squashing them like a beetle.

Stopping Bryant is not the goal and shouldn’t be. Making Bryant over-dribble to create a comfort zone is the goal. By the time Bryant can find a sliver of comfort, the shot clock is an issue and he is forced to hurry those fadeaways. It’s not an overwhelming strategy and Rivers realizes that many coaches before him devised a so-called ingenious strategy to slow Bryant and watched him drain a game-winning shot or drop 45 points.

The brilliance in the plan is its subtlety. Bryant is not being denied the ball. He is not being consistently doubled and tripled before he receives the ball. The Celtics are using either Allen to check him on the perimeter, and the moment he approaches the key, another defender forces him to use more energy to find space.

On this night, Bryant, a 33 percent 3-point shooter in the regular season, was feeling it from long range, so instead of banging bodies in the paint, he opted to live beyond the arc.

“They’re a great scheming team,’’ said Bryant, who is shooting 40.8 percent overall this series. “They have a strategy in place, and they execute extremely well. I feel pretty comfortable. Wasn’t pleased with the way I took care of the ball tonight. I thought I did a horrible job of that. But it’s a great defense.’’

Bryant committed seven turnovers, tying his high this postseason. Most of those occurred trying to pass out of a double team. What’s more, each of those seven turnovers resulted in Boston steals, including the decisive grab by Rajon Rondo that resulted in a layup and a 92-84 lead.

Generally, teams want to keep the ball out of Bryant’s hands. The Celtics are inviting Bryant to handle the ball and the results have been turnovers and difficult shots.

When he makes those shots, and he does quite often, the Lakers are nearly impossible to beat. When he doesn’t, they are vulnerable.

“We want to make it tough, too,’’ Rivers said. “I actually thought we made it tough. The guy is Kobe Bryant. He made some unbelievable shots. But I thought, again, we did a great job on everybody else, and we felt that in Game 3 we didn’t do that. They didn’t get mesmerized by Kobe. We’ve done that a couple times where we’re watching the Kobes and the [Dwyane] Wades so much that everybody else is getting off. I thought our guys stayed pretty disciplined tonight.’’

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