Bryant on brink of closing out fourth championship

ORLANDO, Fla. – All the anger, all the ferocity that had filled Kobe Bryant(notes) for the past week – the clenched-jaw seriousness he brought to these NBA Finals – seemed to melt away by the step as he made the slow walk to the Amway Arena loading dock early Friday. A few Orlando Magic players continued to linger in the hallway an hour after their crushing loss, and Bryant's face brightened at the sight of Mickael Pietrus(notes).

Pietrus had hounded Bryant through much of the four games, forcing him into all those missed shots, and all Bryant had to offer now was a smile. Not one of those half-smirk, pursed-lips, I'm-humoring-you numbers. This was an ear-to-ear grin. Genuine, almost, except for the half-dozen cameras tracking the moment.

"You know all my moves," Bryant said as he leaned in to embrace Pietrus. "I'm going to have to get some new [bleep] for Sunday."

Pietrus laughed awkwardly, and Bryant was gone soon enough, down the hall and into the early-morning humidity. He climbed into a black SUV, and as the car disappeared from view, the Magic were left to chew on one inescapable fact:

They had just let Kobe Bryant get away. There would be no denying him now. Not with just one win separating him from his fourth championship.

Bryant's mission on Sunday, as Lamar Odom(notes) later explained, is simple: "Whatever's in front of him … destroy it."

Bryant hasn't destroyed much in this series, and that's a credit to the Magic, as well as Bryant's own perseverance.

Pietrus has bodied him. Dwight Howard(notes) has helped trap him. Ever since Bryant erupted for 40 points in the Los Angeles Lakers' series-opening win, the floor has shrunk around him. He even publicly praised Pietrus after Game 4, declaring that the Magic guard had done a "hell of a job" steering him away from his comfort spots.

A sincere compliment? In the heat of battle? From Kobe? Just ask Shane Battier(notes) how rarely that happens.

Bryant knows he can't deny the truth: He hasn't worked this hard since last season's Finals loss to the Boston Celtics.

He missed 20 shots in the Lakers' 99-91 overtime victory in Game 4, yet still totaled 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Two nights earlier, he had burned out after an explosive first quarter.

This time, his legs didn't fail him when he needed them most. Bryant opened overtime with consecutive jump shots, then drew a double-team and fed Derek Fisher(notes) for an open 3-pointer. The shot pretty much pierced the Magic's final hopes. It certainly taught them a lesson: Give Kobe too many chances and he'll eventually find a way to beat you.

The Magic have two days to put themselves back together and recharge, and that will help. But the same holds true for Kobe. On his way out of the arena, he sighed at how tired he felt. The Magic have worn on him, but so have all those long playoff runs, those two summers playing for Team USA. His Game 3 struggles forced Lakers Nation to spend a restless couple days on Fatigue Watch.

Bryant delivered another memorable opening quarter in Game 4, but he, again, had to grind through the night. The fuel that carried him through was the same it's been all week: He can't stomach another empty trip to the Finals.

This is his chance to cement his legacy, to prove he can win without Shaq, even if he'd never admit it. Just the other day, Odom and Bryant were debating who could throw a football the farthest, a baseball the fastest, and Odom was again struck by this: Kobe concedes nothing.

"Kobe's ultimate goal," Odom said, "is to win at everything he does."

The Magic know how hot Bryant burns, and that's why their Game 4 collapse stings even more. They had a chance to make Bryant and his Lakers feel some pressure. In the fourth quarter, they took 17 free throws while the Lakers shot none – and still they lost.

Now, barring an unprecedented comeback – no team has ever rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals – the Magic will look back on this series and wonder about what might have been.

What if Courtney Lee's(notes) twisting layup in Game 2 had fallen through the rim?

What if Howard had made just one of his free throws with 11.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Game 4?

What if Hedo Turkoglu(notes) had made one of the four free throws he missed in the quarter?

What if Stan Van Gundy had told the Magic to foul the Lakers on that fateful final possession of regulation?

What if Jameer Nelson(notes) had realized that backpedaling on Mr. .4 wasn't exactly the best defense?

The Magic have shown their resilience time and again in these playoffs, but they sounded like a tormented team afterward. Van Gundy said the decision not to foul Fisher will "haunt me forever." Rafer Alston(notes) pouted over his lost minutes. Howard made sure everyone knew he wasn't the only guy missing free throws. Turkoglu blamed himself for rimming out foul shots … and failing to call timeout on a busted inbounds play … and picking up a silly foul – a hat trick of mea culpas.

The game, Turkoglu said, "just kind of slipped away from our stupidness."

The Lakers were all too happy to grab it from them. After Howard seemingly corralled an offensive rebound late in the third quarter, Bryant wrapped him up, wrenching the ball from his hands and flinging the giant center backward. The officials whistled Howard for a foul, and he protested.

Bryant snarled back: "Just shut the [bleep] up and play!"

Jackson and Van Gundy both later described the scene as the moment the game truly turned back toward the Lakers.

"That just kind of showed the grit that this team has tried to develop over the last year," Jackson said, "to come back from circumstances that are dire …"

Howard looked stunned that Bryant could summon such rage. Hadn't they been teammates in Beijing? Hadn't he always made Kobe laugh?

Bryant wasn't laughing now. His message was clear: No way would he let the Magic take this championship from him.

Some 90 minutes later, Bryant finally broke into a smile. On his way out of the arena, he stopped to talk with Rashard Lewis(notes). He joked with Pietrus and vowed to return even stronger on Sunday. He'll have two days to rest, two days to simmer all over, and as he strode confidently through the hallway, his grin said enough.

Clearly, Kobe Bryant knew where he was headed.

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