DENVER – The bus purred, waiting to whisk these Los Angeles Lakers away to a most uncertain, most uneasy Game 7, and everyone waited for Kobe Bryant to climb aboard. He walked slowly, shoulders slumped, eyes empty. He promised to find the 7-foot salvation for his sixth championship on the trip home and implore Andrew Bynum to spare these Lakers the indignity of a colossal collapse.
"I'm going to tell Andrew he needs to play with a sense of urgency, a sense of desperation," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports late Thursday, later than he ever imagined he'd still be in this playoff series. "He's got to put himself at a fever pitch and elevate his game.
"I'm going to tell him the truth."
Bynum's fortunate that Bryant didn't see the smile on his face as he left the showers and entered the losing locker room. He would've exploded. This is the immaturity of Bynum, the attitude that inspired him to mock the Denver Nuggets for being an easy out when the Lakers had them down 3-1. His arrogance, his indifference, has cost the Lakers.
Bryant cornered Pau Gasol in a private moment before boarding the bus and told him, too: Enough of the drifting, enough of the timidity, enough of the entitlement. Bleeping play, man. These Denver Nuggets are fearless and rugged and believing suddenly they can make this comeback complete on Saturday night in Staples Center. Bryant needed Gasol and Bynum on Thursday, needed them to be champions at the end of a day that had him puking for hours in his hotel room with a stomach flu.
"My room resembled a scene out of 'The Exorcist,' " Bryant said.
When this 113-96 vanquishing was over, Bryant had gone for 31 points and four bags of intravenous fluids. The Lakers needed Bynum and Gasol to play big, play forcefully, and the promise of this playoff series had dissolved into the disarray of last year's doomsday end in Dallas. The Lakers let the Nuggets get every shot they wanted on the floor – uncontested 3-pointers and drives to the basket.
As disgraces go, this had to rate as one of the worst in the modern Lakers playoff history. The Lakers had started out this series looking like championship contenders and now they're stumbling to the finish line, Bynum and Gasol reverting to the soft, lost souls of a season ago.
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"With Kobe being as sick as a dog and trying to will us, it's disappointing to watch him give that type of effort, getting on the floor for loose balls, and we don't get it from everybody," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "The reality is both of those guys [Bynum and Gasol] have to play better in order for us to win. We're going to have a tough time winning if we get the same type of production."
The Lakers were down 13-0 to start, Bryant brought the Lakers within nine at halftime with 19 points, and then it all got away in the third quarter. For Bryant, this was pure humiliation, pure hell with no one easing his burden. For all the tough shots he made – step-back fades, the driving layups, the midrange jumpers – Bryant had everything going but the spirit of his most important teammates.
Bryant bent over, gasped for air and clutched Nuggets uniforms on defense. Through it all, he still found ways to make plays. It was a vintage performance without a vintage result. Everything had grown so dire, Kobe began longing for the most emotionally unstable of these Lakers to return.
The Lakers never expected to see Metta World Peace in this series – never mind expected to need him. Yet things have become so troubling for the Lakers – so perplexing with a 3-1 series lead spiraling into a Game 7 – that Bryant has gone far beyond forgiving World Peace for that foolish seven-game suspension. He's missing him.
"I expect him to come out and play with the tenacity that he's known for," Bryant said. "He's the one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with a sense of urgency. And play with no fear. So, I'm looking forward to having him by my side again.''
Between his news conference and the bus, Bryant balanced his anger with the back-to-back no-shows with some historical perspective. "We've been through this before," he said. "We went seven games with Houston when we won the title in 2009, and we went the full five games with Sacramento when we won the title in 2000. I mean, against Houston, we got blown out in Game 6 and had to come home for Game 7. In that series, we struggled with inconsistency, with a lack of effort.
"So, I've seen this before."
In his mind, Bryant could still see a jagged journey to a championship, but that vision is so bleary now. This time, Bynum is no teenager and Gasol is no twentysomething still finding his way. They ought to know better, and yet they've let the Nuggets reshape the momentum of this series. Denver coach George Karl has been masterful in the way he's reengaged these Nuggets, the way he's sold a plan of victory to his players.
It won't be Mike Brown selling these Lakers on survival, but Bryant. His voice was scratchy late Thursday, his steps sluggish, but he had a full day to recover for Saturday night at Staples Center. The bus rumbled, his teammates slumped in seats, and it wouldn't be long until Bryant climbed the steps and joined them. Kobe Bryant was sick and tired and on his way to Andrew Bynum, on his way to a most uncertain, unsettling Game 7. Someone was going to catch hell, catch his wrath, and it promised to be a scene straight out of "The Exorcist."
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