Kobe's Cali cool saves Lakers from disaster

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

LOS ANGELES – His 35th and 36th points of the night had come on a floater so sweet it could make honey jealous, and now Kobe Bryant was bouncing down at the other end of the court, popping his Lakers jersey for a swaying, star-studded crowd.

On a night when it was the shots he didn't take and the defensive assignments he did that made the biggest difference, there in the final minute of a must-win game, Kobe wasn't letting this one get away without making his presence felt offensively.

Just when he had passed up enough shots for Boston to stop double-teaming him, he turned killer and tore up Ray Allen for two quick hoops, the final a beauty of a teardrop leaner to all but seal the victory.

The Los Angeles Lakers didn't just need Tuesday's 87-81 victory over the Boston Celtics to cut the NBA Finals to 2-1; the Lakers needed this as a franchise.

If there indeed was any heart inside the Lakers, any Laker Pride left, the Lakers couldn't get pushed to the brink of a sweep. They couldn't let their forever rivals run right over them to set up a champagne celebration in the Staples Center.

Bryant knew this, knew it was a must-have game in every imaginable way. He also knew every other player in his locker room would be looking to him, wondering how he'd respond to the situation, to the pressure, to all the talk radio cackle that had extended L.A.'s June Gloom up and down the dial.

So he played it cool.

"It wouldn't be talk radio if everybody was so optimistic and positive," Bryant shrugged. "That's not fun. …

"What I tried to do with my teammates is just stay calm," he said. "(Down 0-2) wasn't the end of the world. It's important they understand that I'm not pressing, I'm not worried or anything like that because they feed off of that. They feed off of my confidence, and I have all the confidence in the world that we can come here and win."

The Bryant as team leader story has become repetitive, but it's the only reason the Lakers are in this series.

He scored 36 points and still had everyone raving about the defense he played on Paul Pierce (2-for-14 in a horror show homecoming), the patience he displayed (playing decoy on repeated late-game possessions) and the sheer calm he brought to the gym.

"I think undoubtedly it's the leadership of Kobe Bryant out there," said coach Phil Jackson on a key to the win.

The thing was that Bryant's fellow Lakers had done little in this series and even less in this game to earn his trust and patience. They had been soft defensively. Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol had struggled all over the court. Others had been apprehensive.

This was the biggest night of the year for the Lakers. The Staples Center was packed with A-list celebrities and that unique Hollywood buzz. They even put Hugh Hefner up on the Kiss Cam where he puckered up for two of his three girlfriends. Everyone was hoping to see some sign of life from a team that appeared destined for a title just a week ago.

Yet no one other than Bryant was doing much of anything. None of the Lakers' other four starters would hit for double figures, and if it weren't for the uber-confident gunner Sasha Vujacic (20 points), this would have been a one-man show.

Only the one man wouldn't allow it.

"For me it's a pretty simple formula," Bryant said. "I just take it to them, take it to the basket. If they come, then I'm going to hit Pau, I'm going to hit Sasha, I'm going to find Lamar. That's how we try to play. We don't focus on if Pau is struggling or Lamar is struggling.

"We just want to move the ball, make them double. If they collapse, I'll hit my shooters."

Gone was the Kobe who would look around at this collection of disappointing teammates and disappearing reputations and try to do it alone. Gone was the guy who last summer was calling into those L.A. talk shows to spread his own opinions that were neither optimistic nor positive.

It would have been understandable if he had. If no one else was going to sense the severity of the moment, maybe Bryant should have retreated to his "follow me" approach.

Instead, down the stretch, he was content to watch the game play out without his immediate impact. On three of four critical possessions he never touched the ball, standing out near center court drawing defensive eyes and plenty of open room.

"That's why he's the MVP this year," Vujacic said.

Then on the other end, Bryant all but climbed into Pierce's jersey, denying passes, good looks and space. At one point the two even had a fairly long conversation, Bryant never afraid to get into a guy's head.

"Putting Kobe on Pierce was the difference in tonight's game," Jackson said.

The defensive assignment he did take; the shots that he didn't.

When it was all done and the confetti fell and the stars went home and a series was born, you almost could forget the guy had scored 36 points, including the magical, floating, game-clinching two.

"Just be patient," Bryant said of that final shot.

It's the story of the series, of the season, of the Lakers' chances.

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