Bryant gets some valuable assistance
LOS ANGELES — When Celtics legend Bill Russell presented Kobe Bryant with the MVP trophy, the Staples Center crowd erupted into chants of “M-V-P, M-V-P.’’ Naturally, Bryant savored the moment with his wife and daughters by his side. But he had even greater reason to cherish the cheers amid freshly fallen purple and gold confetti. Bryant heard few cheers during Game 7 of the 2010 Finals because his play didn’t deserve them.
By his own admission, it was a tough night. And a miserable statistical line tells the story. Bryant scored 23 points on 6-for-24 shooting. He went 1 for 7 in the first quarter, 2 for 7 in the second, 2 for 6 in the third and 1 for 4 in the fourth. More than at any other time in the playoffs, Bryant needed help from his teammates and they came through. Scoring 20 points, Ron Artest did more than keep his emotions under control. Pau Gasol contributed 19 points and 18 rebounds. Derek Fisher stepped up with a 10-point (4 for 6) effort.
“I just wanted it so bad,’’ said Bryant. “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.
“I was thankful that I was able to make one shot at the end of the game and made some free throws. But it was a tough one.’’
The prospect of winning a fifth ring, of solidifying his legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats, of winning one more championship than Shaquille O’Neal surprisingly proved overwhelming for Bryant. Instead of channeling his famed desire and single-minded focus into a great performance, he stumbled. It was the rare occasion when Bryant failed to elevate his game on the biggest stage.
Anyone watching in the arena or at home could sense a problem almost from the start. And Lakers coach Phil Jackson was no exception.
“In the first half, I just mentioned I thought he was a little bit too animated,’’ said Jackson. “He was trying too hard, and I thought he’s a guy that can try hard and get things accomplished by sheer will. But this night was not one that he was able to do that on. He had to do things that were off ball and things that were in the context of what we wanted to do offensively.’’
Gasol, who also struggled in stretches, missing nine field goal attempts and a pair of free throws in the first half, was well aware of how the magnitude of the moment affected Bryant.
“Obviously, he didn’t shoot the ball well, but we all understand,’’ said Gasol. “We all had the desire to win tonight, badly, and sometimes that’s dangerous because it’s a double-edged sword there. Shots weren’t going in for most of us. We just continued to work as a team, as a group . . . He stuck with it and played excellent down the stretch, made huge free throws, made huge buckets, and you know, that’s why he’s the MVP and probably the best player in the world.’’
His one fourth-quarter field goal was a 17-foot fadeaway jumper with 5 minutes 22 seconds remaining. The field goal pushed the Lakers ahead, 68-64. Bryant made three free throws down the stretch and helped ensure the Lakers would never relinquish the lead. He scored 10 points in the fourth thanks largely to nine trips to the foul line.
But Bryant’s biggest play of the fourth may have been an assist. With 1:01 left, he found Artest for a 3-pointer. While Artest shooting 3-pointers makes most Lakers’ fans nervous, clearly that was not the case for Bryant.
“The timeout [before the 3-pointer] we mentioned to them that they’re not going to let you beat them on the drive,’’ said Jackson. “You’re going to have to get the ball up, hit the open man, we’re going to have to share the ball. My staff was very strongly encouraging Ron because he was the guy with the open looks to step into his shot, be confident and take the one there in rhythm, otherwise penetrate and move the ball to the bigs inside.’’
Throughout the game Derek Fisher tried to talk to Bryant, to calm him down.
“When you shoot the ball with the volume that Kobe does, there are going to be periods where everything is going in and maybe sometimes where it’s not,’’ Fisher said. “I don’t remember a lot of necessarily easy shots that he was getting throughout the game.’’
Nothing came easy for Bryant last night. But the fact that Bryant needed and received help from his teammates made last night’s championship clinching victory even more memorable for the MVP.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.