The Los Angeles Lakers’ star guard wouldn’t have become a peerless postseason finisher without his performance at the erstwhile Delta Center in 1997, when Bryant spectacularly failed to finish off the Jazz.
The 18-year-old rookie’s four infamous airballs late in the final game of that second-round playoff series in Salt Lake City only made Bryant tougher and more determined. Thirteen years later, the calculating veteran makes sure no lead over the Lakers is safe—certainly not the tenuous four-point lead Bryant erased Sunday with a few flicks of his wrist in Game 1 of the clubs’ latest playoff clash.
“You’re not going to stop Kobe Bryant at this point,” Sloan said Monday before practice at the Los Angeles Clippers’ Playa Vista training complex. “You can double him and try to make their big guys make a shot, but you just have to play a little harder and hope he’ll miss a few. … He’s learned a lot of tricks over the years, a lot of ways to score in a close game. It’s a tougher task to defend him than almost anybody.”
Bryant led Los Angeles to a 104-99 win with deceptive ease in the opener, scoring 11 points in the final four minutes. Game 2 is Tuesday night at Staples Center.
Back in 1997, the teenage Bryant—whose shaved head gave him more than a passing resemblance to slain rapper Tupac Shakur—first airballed a mid-range jumper that could have won Game 5 in regulation. Bryant then missed the rim on a 3-point attempt early in overtime before leaving another long jumper far short in the final minute.
He finished by with an airball on a potential tying 3-pointer, which bounced meekly out of bounds in the waning seconds to the delight of a jeering crowd. Coach Del Harris defiantly defended his decision to entrust the Lakers’ season to Bryant, saying the teenager already was his team’s top late-game performer.
Bryant’s finishing skills are well honed now, with his artistic knack for creating outside shots eluding nearly any defender’s best efforts. He won a half-dozen games for the Lakers this season on last-second baskets, and he didn’t even wait until the final seconds of Game 1 to finish off Utah.
After the Lakers’ practice in El Segundo on Monday, Bryant deflected praise for his late-game poise onto Los Angeles’ defense, which held the Jazz to one field goal in the final 4:10. Though Bryant must be responsible for most of the Lakers’ clutch scoring this season, he sees improvements in other areas for the defending champions.
“It’s a different team,” Bryant said. “We were much better offensively last year for whatever reason, but we’ve better defensively this year.”
Utah’s efforts to guard Bryant could get a boost if Andrei Kirilenko(notes) returns Tuesday from a strained left calf that has prevented him from playing a full game in nearly two months. The Russian forward’s wiry frame gives him a chance to stop Bryant, or at least force him to be more creative.
Kirilenko went through a full practice with the Jazz on Monday, and he estimated his chances of playing in Game 2 at “50-50.”
“He adds a lot of energy to their team,” Bryant said of Kirilenko. “He’s a very good passer and an emotional defender.”
Kirilenko also could give a boost to Utah’s low-post defense, which struggled against Lakers 7-footers Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes), who confirmed he’s putting off arthroscopic surgery on the small tear in the meniscus of his right knee until after the postseason.
Without Kirilenko and center Mehmet Okur(notes), who’s out for the postseason, the Jazz didn’t have an inside presence to match the Lakers. Kyrylo Fesenko(notes), the Ukrainian big man filling in for Okur, had just two points in 13 minutes while playing self-acknowledged inadequate defense.
“In the first half, I was kind of thinking, ‘Wow, I’m playing here against the Lakers,”’ Fesenko said. “I have a long way to go. I’m not happy with my game. I need to play tougher. I got a little soft in the last couple of games.”
While the Jazz changed their approach, the Lakers stuck to their usual between-games routine, honed by two straight runs to the NBA finals.
Los Angeles focused on getting a better effort out of its reserves, who gave away a lead early in the fourth quarter. Lamar Odom(notes) was particularly vocal about needing better communication among the Lakers’ bench players on defense.
“I just know we can play a lot better together, just using each other and playing off each other,” Odom said.