Lakers look for Bryant to step up
BOSTON -- On a day when 90-degree heat and thick air blanketed Boston like a wool sweater, it was only fitting that Kobe Bryant would be talking about swimwear at Saturday's practice.
"I'd much rather have the pressure of this moment as opposed to having the pressure of deciding which swim trunks I'm going to wear in Bora Bora, the Gucci ones or the Yves St. Laurent ones," he said, referring to where he might be right now if his team wasn't in the NBA Finals. "I'd much rather have this pressure."
The Lakers can only hope Bryant's cool demeanor and sunny disposition isn't an act. Even with Celtics starters Paul Pierce (knee) and Kendrick Perkins (ankle) not 100 percent, the Lakers know they're going to need the MVP to bounce back in Sunday night's Game 2 if they want to avoid falling into a 2-0 hole. Only three teams in NBA history have ever come back from such a deficit to win the Finals.
For Bryant, things did not exactly go swimmingly in Game 1. Facing a Celtics defense designed to keep him out of the paint and off the foul line, he hit just 9-of-26 shots from the floor. He managed just four points in the fourth quarter (on one-of-six shooting) when the game's outcome hung in the balance.
Partly as a result of Bryant's shooting woes, the Lakers scored just 37 points in the second half and 15 in the fourth quarter.
While Bryant continues to insist he just missed open shots, his struggles against the Celtics are starting to become a trend. In the three games Bryant has played against Boston's league-leading defense this season he has managed to shoot a combined 24-of-72 (33.3 percent). Not surprisingly, the Lakers have lost all three.
"[They're] just making me a perimeter player in terms of being able to shoot the ball," Bryant said. "Two games we played in the regular season, I shot the ball bad too. Hopefully it just means I'm due."
Bryant said he plans to tweak a few things with his shooting mechanics ("release and arc and things like that," he said), but that otherwise it's just a matter of getting the shots to go down.
The Celtics, of course, might have other ideas about the reasons for Kobe's inability to post big scoring numbers. They could point to the job that Kevin Garnett, Perkins and the other Celtics big men have done in walling off the lane to keep Kobe out. They could even mention the willingness of Ray Allen, James Posey and Pierce to stay with Kobe as much as possible and at least try to get a hand in his face.
But Boston, perhaps not wanting to wake a sleeping dog, has for the most part let Bryant continue to assert that his shots just aren't falling.
"I hope he keeps missing," Allen said.
Whatever the case, the Celtics have to feel good about what it's been able to do so far to contain Bryant. They have basically turned the Lakers star into a high-volume shooter who has to earn everything he gets. Boston also has to be buoyed by the fact that it has outrebounded L.A. in all three games this season, including a 46-33 edge in Game 1.
"I thought we missed a lot of good shots [in Game 1]," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "And I know they scored 88 points, but I think we can be a better defensive team."
The Lakers indeed seem to know they are up against a formidable foe. Since Game 1 they have spent a lot of time talking about being more physical under the boards, and being more patient on offense. Against a Boston defense that tends to overplay the ball side, the Lakers should have plenty of opportunities to find cutters or open looks on the other side.
Bryant did a great job sharing the ball and finding teammates in the first half en route to a 51-46 Lakers lead, but seemed to get away from it after the intermission.
"In the second half we didn't execute as well," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "We did a lot more things off the dribble."
"I really believe we need to move the ball better against this team," agreed Lakers forward Vladimir Radmanovic. "Our first option is probably not going to be there as many times as we thought, and we have to counter that."
L.A. coach Phil Jackson said he fully expects his team to make those adjustments and play better in Game 2. He also said he expects Bryant to lead the way.
"He's been an unstoppable force in this game," Jackson said. "He usually doesn't have two games in a row that are bad."
Bryant had better be at least close to unstoppable Sunday night, or he might not be packing a 2008 NBA championship ring with those fancy designer swim trunks when he heads off on his summer vacation.