LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant tugged on his sport coat, squared his jaw and stared into the cameras. His eyes blazed with anger, and it was easy at that moment to understand the fury that had famously sent him on the warpath a year ago. Bryant didn't demand to be traded Thursday night, but no one would have been surprised if he had. At the least, he had to be wondering if it was too late to get a refund on that Pau Gasol deal.
Kobe Bryant doesn't do collapses, and yet here he was, sitting dead center in the biggest one in NBA Finals history. His Los Angeles Lakers, national favorites only eight days earlier, had gagged away a 24-point lead. Even at the midpoint of the third quarter, they were still up 20. Though Bryant was about the only Laker who didn't seem to wither under the pressure in the final quarter, he, too, must shoulder some blame. Miss 13 of 19 shots in the biggest game of the season and you don't get a free pass.
"We just wet the bed," Bryant said, his scowl briefly giving way to a grin. "A nice big one, too. One of the ones you can't put a towel over. It was terrible."
The Lakers might not get to clean up the mess until next season. They now trail the Boston Celtics 3-1, and no team has ever dug its way out of such a hole in the Finals. This was supposed to be the coronation to Bryant's MVP season. Instead, the Celtics have exposed the Lakers as a team apparently too young, too inexperienced, too frail to stand on the game's biggest stage.
One play said enough. Clinging to a three-point lead with less than 40 seconds left, the Celtics isolated Ray Allen on Sasha Vujacic above the top of the key. Kevin Garnett ran over to set a screen on Vujacic only to be waved off by Allen. A couple of dribbles later, Allen was cruising by Vujacic through the middle of the lane. Lakers coach Phil Jackson had told his players to stay home on Boston's shooters, and Gasol hesitated about leaving Garnett until it was too late. Allen finished with an uncontested layup.
As far as big-game defensive stands go, this ranked as one of the most pathetic. Not even Leon Powe's Game 2 gallop through the Lakers was this bad.
Vujacic, as often seems to be the case with him, initially tried to blame the breakdown on officiating.
"Personally, for me, it's hard to adjust how I have to guard Allen not to be called for a foul," he said. "… I wanted to stay with him. I wanted to play him aggressive, but, again, there would be a foul. I kind of step back and I give him the room to operate and he went to the basket.
"Bad decision on my side."
There were a lot of bad decisions on the Lakers' side. Once Gasol saw Allen loose, he should have raced over to at least foul the Celtics guard, even if it meant leaving Garnett.
"My issue with the team," Jackson said, "is we gave up too many layups."
The Lakers have been soft throughout these Finals, and Thursday's performance certainly isn't going to help Gasol shake his rep. Said one scout watching the game, "He's scared to death."
Even before tipoff, Jackson acknowledged Gasol's reputation. "I think," Jackson said, "that's one of the reasons perhaps we were fortunate enough to get him. … That perhaps he was not a center … he wasn't tough enough to be a center."
Bryant has reason to question the toughness of more than a few of his teammates. The Lakers played as crisp and free as they have all season in the first two quarters, sharing the ball, everyone getting shots, attacking the Celtics before they could set their defense. Lamar Odom even shrugged off his slump by making his first seven shots. Bryant didn't make a single basket in the first two quarters and, still, the Lakers took an 18-point lead into halftime.
But once Boston picked up its defense? The Lakers picked up their vacation itineraries. Odom disappeared yet again, making just one shot after halftime.
"They weren't nearly as aggressive as they were in the first half," Garnett said. "It just looks like they wanted to get the ball to Kobe and let him sort of finish it off. That's what it looked like to me."
That's what it looked like to everybody, Bryant included. After a season in which they exceeded even their own expectations and reached the Finals, these Lakers haven't proven sturdy enough to stand alongside their leader when it matters most.
Nearly an hour after the game, Bryant was still simmering. He joked that it would take "a lot of wine, a lot of beer, a couple shots – maybe like 20 of them" to get over the loss. He has now dropped seven of the past nine Finals games in which he played, but Thursday's had to rank as the hardest to digest.
"We're hurting," Odom said.
Bryant hasn't abandoned hope of climbing back into the series. At least that's what he said, vowing to put his head down and return to work.
"Takes one swing at a time," he said, "to chop down a tree."
But after Thursday? After he and his teammates soiled their sheets? Even Bryant has to wonder if anyone's strong enough to help him hold the ax.