ORLANDO, Fla. – Kobe Bryant(notes) clenched a fist of self-loathe, reached back and pounded his forehead. He hit himself again, and again, and again in the Los Angeles Lakers huddle. Perhaps this wasn't so much about that missed free throw in the final seconds, but his own monumental miscalculation. Bryant had come out throwing haymakers at the Orlando Magic, trying his damndest for the TKO.
For his failures, Kobe Bryant paid a steep price. This had been impatient Kobe, the restless Kobe and make no mistake: He punched himself out in Game 3. Too much, too soon. Here it was late in the fourth quarter, late in a Lakers comeback and Bryant was fighting fatigue, fighting himself. Bryant's gone so hard, for so long, and maybe that's an immense part of the reason Bryant was so hellbent on taking the life out of these Magic, the belief.
Willing heart, wobbly legs.
Bryant tried to take it with a fury of fadeaway jumpers and long 3-pointers and magnificent drives, and it left him breathless on the back end of Game 3, left him gasping for air when he missed 11 of his final 15 shots and missed five free throws.
Through it all, Bryant's teammates made a furious comeback to move the Lakers within a shot at redemption with half a minute left, within two points, and still Bryant tried to split two Magic defenders. Dwight Howard(notes) poked the ball away and Mickael Pietrus(notes) grabbed it and Bryant stood cursing himself in the deafening din of Amway Arena.
Everything had changed in these NBA Finals, and deep down Bryant understood that all those minutes, all those games over the past two years – with the Lakers, with Team USA – take a toll. He reached back in Game 3, and a most unsettling truth washed over him: Even with 31 points and eight assists, the burst wasn't there for Bryant.
Truth be told, Bryant was beat.
Willing heart, wobbly legs.
"Yeah," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He'll say no."
He pushed too hard Tuesday night. He shot his teammates disdainful glares when they failed to get him the ball, and he berated Andrew Bynum(notes) in timeouts and did his damndest to hold down the Magic. This was one of those nights when it was hell to be a teammate, when 17,461 screaming fans found an ally in No. 24 on the Lakers. Kobe was on the edge, the brink. These Magic scare him, but so does the understanding that these championship seasons can be so fleeting.
It makes him a nightmare of a teammate this time of year. He was beyond unpleasant with his teammates Tuesday night; he was downright nasty.
"If they can't stand up to that, they can't play on this team," Jackson said. "You have to be able to stand up to that and play through it."
Whatever was happening with Bryant, the Lakers were losing Game 3 on the defensive end. The Magic shot an NBA Finals record 62.5 percent for the night – a surreal 75 percent at the half – and still the Lakers had a chance to close out Game 3. Jackson kept Bryant on the bench until the seven-minute mark of the fourth quarter, longer than usual, because the Magic had run fresh body after fresh body, trap after trap, at him. He had 31 points but needed 25 shots.
"They threw the whole kitchen sink," Bryant said. "They did a great job staying on my body."
In the stands, there was Mike Krzyzewski, the Olympic coach, who had come to the NBA Finals for a photo-op with David Stern and the two youth basketball crime families, Nike and Adidas. Never mind the laughable takeover of amateur basketball they had come to propose, Krzyzewski owes Bryant a debt of gratitude for the gold medal he gave him with Team USA. As Bryant forced LeBron James(notes) and Carmelo Anthony(notes) to grow up the past two summers, he pushed his body to the limit.
His work with the best basketball trainer in the world, Tim Grover, has him sturdy, but the longer this series goes, the bigger the risk of these Magic running him ragged. Someone outside the Lakers' locker room watched him leave at halftime and remarked how exhausted he still looked after intermission. For Bryant, it had to be jarring to go off for 17 points in the first quarter and have the Magic still within four points. For Bryant, it had to be jarring to try to take the game over in the final minute and never see his shot rise to the rim, just the ball slip, slip, slip away with Game 3.
"I'm used to coming through in those situations," Bryant said. "The team trusts me to come through in those situations."
Here's the thing, though: The Lakers had come to trust that Bryant trusted them. Yes, he was on fire to start the game, but the Magic are home again, alive, and even Bryant's greatness won't allow him to out-shoot Rashard Lewis(notes) and Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and even Pietrus. Bryant was livid Tuesday night because he knows his body, his limits, and he tried everything to leave these Magic bleeding and prone on the Amway Arena floor.
Bryant swung and swung and ultimately punched himself out in Game 3. Near the end, he sat there on the bench alone and delivered the final blows into his forehead. This was the worst kind of self-loathe for Bryant. His spirit had been right, but his judgment wrong. He tried to knock those Magic out, but now he goes the distance.
Willing heart, wobbly legs. Now, Kobe Bryant digs deeper and will soon find the answer to the question that he truly wanted to avoid: After all these months, all these games for the purple and gold, for the red, white and blue, just how much do I have left?