Lakers wither under Kobe's glare

BOSTON – On his way into the losing locker room, the most angry man in the Garden was heard to bellow a spontaneous stream of curses into the ears of his Los Angeles Lakers. As the door slammed behind them, a witness heard Kobe Bryant(notes) screaming that he needed some-bleeping-one to make a stand with him.

The Lakers have been pushed to the edge and Bryant to the brink. Here it was, the most important night of these NBA Finals, a Game 5 with everything even, and it felt like the post-Shaq Lakers with Bryant left to fend for himself. Bryant had gone for 38 points at the Garden, one tough shot after another, a great Celtics defense daring him to make baskets from one more odd angle, one more contested circumstance.

The loneliest Laker had to be Bryant, watching one breakdown after another, a procession of Celtics getting baskets and rebounds and loose balls when they most needed them. He needed someone to grab a defensive rebound, stop Paul Pierce(notes) and get between Rajon Rondo(notes) and the rim.

A little more than an hour after the 92-86 loss, the surliness was gone, replaced with pursed lips and a glare gone to Game 6 now. Bryant wore unlaced high-tops for an ankle that had been hurt again as he walked to a waiting bus on the loading dock.

"We've regressed since Game 1," Bryant confessed to Yahoo! Sports. "Our defense belongs on milk cartons in the last two games."

All around him, these Lakers were unraveling. Andrew Bynum(notes) struggled on one knee. Lamar Odom(notes) felt sick. Kevin Garnett(notes) destroyed Pau Gasol(notes), and Paul Pierce obliterated Ron Artest(notes). Rondo made dramatic, defining plays. The Lakers let down everywhere. This looked like 2008 again, looked like the manhandling that doomed the Lakers to a humiliating Finals loss in Boston.

When the game was truly lost, the Celtics scored on 12 of 13 possessions in the third quarter. All too easy, all impossible for Bryant to answer, even with what was the hottest hand in the game. He would go for 19 points in the third, and the degree of difficulty had Celtics coach Doc Rivers turning to his two assistants, Tom Thibodeau and Armond Hill, and saying simply, "Those are tough shots. … He's making tough shots."

[Photos: See the latest images of Kobe Bryant]

This was Rivers' way of saying: What else can we do with him? Rivers could tell his players wanted to change the defense, wanted to start trapping Bryant, but he resisted. "It's only two points each time he scores. Not 10," Rivers said. The shots kept falling and Bryant kept burning for someone on the Lakers to start playing with him. The rest of them – save for Andrew Bynum, who's playing in excruciating pain – can be so bendable on the road. The teeth of the Celtics' defense can be beastly, and the rest of the Lakers wanted little to do with it.

Here's what's delicate now for these Lakers and what they have to fear as the Finals return to Los Angeles for Game 6 and perhaps Game 7. Just how fragile are they as a team? Privately, the Celtics believed a Game 5 victory would have Bryant tearing into his teammates, thrusting them back into shells when they needed to be strong.

The Celtics are playing for each other now, and it's easy to see in so many ways. Just watch how Rondo reacted when Artest knocked Garnett to the floor with a hard foul. He walked up and shoved Artest back, absorbing a technical foul but letting K.G. – and the Lakers – know that he had his back.

Everyone wonders how Bryant goes about these next hours until Game 6 at the Staples Center. On the eve of Game 1, Bryant told me how the development of these Lakers, their growth, allowed him to channel his aggression, his time, into his own game. Two years ago, Bryant said, the Lakers weren't good enough to beat the Celtics. He hated losing to them, but he could live with it. This one, he'll take to his grave. This one, he'll never get over.

Through the past two years, through the '09 title over the Orlando Magic, the Lakers had become largely self-sufficient. Bryant no longer needed to rail so hard. Now, falling down to the Celtics 3-2, you wonder how much has changed, how much Bryant must do in Games 6 and 7 to win his fifth championship.

The idea of this moment becoming too enormous for the Lakers troubles him. "Just man up and play," Bryant sniffed. "What's the big deal? If I have to say something to them, then we don't deserve to be champions."

The big deal is unmistakable: The Lakers need to get tougher, stronger and smarter to beat Boston. Yes, they've regressed, Bryant confessed. Milk-carton defense, he called it. For that to happen this deep into the Finals, against this team, it was downright disconcerting to the best player on the planet. He was walking toward the bus Sunday night, on his way out of the Garden and back to L.A. for Game 6, trying to come back on a championship series, on a Celtics franchise that has been the bane of these Lakers for 50 years.

All that screaming in the locker room, all that angst over a Game 5 that felt like '08 again, and Bryant stopped walking and stood for a moment. He had to start building back these Lakers, building back the fragility of a defending champion on the brink of elimination.

His eyes narrowed now, his lips stiffened, and Kobe Bryant would say late in this chase for a back-to-back championship, "Listen, if you told me at the beginning of the year that we've got two games at home to win a championship, yeah, I'll take that [bleep]."

Two games in Staples Center and two final chances for Bryant's wrath to deliver these Los Angeles Lakers an epic NBA title. All the cursing, all the screaming, was finally done as Bryant walked calmly, quietly to the purring bus.

His words still hung inside the Garden, though. Still loomed over these Lakers. Someone has to make a stand with Kobe Bryant. Someone has to fight to save a championship season.