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Business as usual for driven Bryant

Star’s legacy may be riding on Game 7 win

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / June 16, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant started most answers with a shrug during his postgame press conference. Reviewing the pressure and potential pitfalls of last night’s Game 6 did not interest him. He repeatedly said, “It was just a game we had to win.’’ Questions about Game 7 tomorrow night elicited a similar response.

What does it mean to Bryant to face the Celtics in a decisive Game 7 in the Finals?

“No different to me,’’ he said. “I don’t mean to be a buzz kill, but it’s not. I know what’s at stake, but I’m not tripping. It’s a game we’ve got to win, simple as that. It’s not going crazy over it. We’ve got to take care of business.’’

The taking-care-of-business part makes sense. It’s the focus that the Lakers need. But Game 7 versus the Celtics will be no different than any other high-stakes contest? Really? Not buying it.

To claim the players in purple and gold cherished last night’s 89-67 victory at the Staples Center equally would deny the obvious. The Game 6 win meant more to Bryant. Before the series started, Lakers coach Phil Jackson acknowledged the Lakers star may have taken the 2008 Finals loss more personally than others. The Celtics clinched that title with a 39-point victory in Game 6. Now, Bryant and his teammates have earned a true shot at redemption.

And there is even more at stake for Bryant tomorrow night. His legacy. His personal revenge for the 2008 Finals debacle.

Bryant has a chance to earn a fifth championship ring, one shy of Michael Jordan. The 2010 NBA title would also cement Bryant’s place in the pantheon of great Lakers players. The way LA legend Jerry West told it before the Finals started, Bryant is “the greatest Laker player that we have ever seen.’’ And another championship on the résumé certainly wouldn’t hurt his ranking.

“The opportunity is not something that makes me happy,’’ said Bryant. “It’s winning and taking advantage of the opportunity that makes me happy. That buzzer goes off and we’re not victorious, am I thankful for the opportunity? Nope.’’

Before legacies are re-assessed, Bryant and his teammates must find a way to defeat the Celtics two games in a row. They have not accomplished that feat thus far in the Finals. It will be tough for the Lakers to hold the Celtics to 67 points or 33 percent shooting from the floor in Game 7. It is unlikely Pau Gasol will repeat his playoff career-high nine-assist performance. But the odds are Bryant will exceed his Game 6 totals.

Bryant’s 26-point performance in Game 6 follows his 38-point effort in the Game 5 loss. It was his 14th 30-plus point game of the 2010 playoffs and third in the Finals. Bryant scored a playoff-high 40 points against the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Still, last night’s game proved Bryant doesn’t have to do it all. He received scoring support from Ron Artest (15 points) and Pau Gasol (17), as well as the Lakers’ bench (25). After a hot start (5 for 8, 11 points in the first quarter), Bryant struggled with accuracy in the second quarter (1 for 4).

When his offensive pace slowed, the bench was able to pick up its production. With Bryant out of the game in the second, the Lakers stretched their lead from 13 to 18 points. Bryant went 1 for 2 in the third and Artest, Gasol, and the bench picked up the slack.

When asked how important it was to extend the lead with Bryant on the bench, Gasol said, “It’s important when any player comes out of the game. I think we have enough on our bench that we can sustain the level of playing that we have been carrying throughout to that point. It’s important that the bench comes in and is ready to step in and make plays and be active.’’

Jackson praised their contributions, not Bryant’s, during his postgame press conference. In fact, Bryant was never mentioned. Certainly he will be the focus of conversation leading up to Game 7. His focus however, will be the same.

“How I approach it is going out there and doing what I always do,’’ said Bryant. “It’s not because it’s a Game 7, you’ve got to do anything different. But if you play hard all the time, you’ve just got to do the same thing you’re accustomed to doing.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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