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Truth comes out after Kobe's fifth title
The affable, grinning father who appeared with his wife and two young daughters — their matching sparkle dresses reflecting off his newly-earned MVP trophy — was a marked departure from the distant, dour superstar who had deigned to grace us with his presence these last two months.
Since the postseason began back on April 18, Kobe Bryant has been a portrait in pissy-ness. Always, he was always the last one in the interview room. Then he’d remove his black shades, and promptly start denying the obvious.
Did he want to be recognized as the best player in the game?
Means nothing to me, he said.
What about Shaq?
It is special, playing the Celtics in the Finals?
Do you need to avenge the defeat of two years ago, the humiliating 39-point loss in Game 6?
Of course not. Bryant’s was a practiced contempt, though you really couldn’t hold it against him, the way he played. There are bigger, younger guys now. LeBron James and Dwight Howard come first to mind. But they would learn the hard way that brilliant marketing does not entitle you to victory.
Meanwhile, Bryant played to insist it was still his time. He was mostly brilliant — despite a busted finger, a sore ankle and a chronically bad knee that required draining at least once. Remember way back when, as the playoffs began, it was said that Bryant had lost his burst. Such a loss proved temporary, however, as the draining was followed by a string of 30-point games, 10 of them, running from the Lakers' first-round series with Oklahoma City to the first game of the Finals with Boston. By then, it had become clear: LeBron was a bigger brand, but Kobe was the better player. It was no longer a debate. Bryant had finally gained the recognition he had always sought, as the world’s best basketball player.
The irony — and I hesitate using the word, as it is the single-most abused term in sports — is that Bryant found himself at the edge of eternal ignominy Thursday night at the Staples Center. In a Game 7 against the Celtics, he came out tight. Put another way, the greatest player in the world — The Closest Thing To Michael — was choking.
“Tonight it got the best of me,” he said immediately after the game.
“Sometimes you want something so bad it slips away from you.”
It was slipping away, all right, the game and his reputation as its greatest closer. For most of the night, Kobe Bryant looked to have reverted to every bad habit of youth. He was forcing shots and excluding his teammates. He was imperious. All of that could be forgiven, of course, but for the fact that he kept missing. He was 1-for-7 after a quarter, 3-for-14 after a half, and 5-for-20 after three. At halftime, Ron Artest — who would lavish praise upon his shrink in the post-game — had accounted for more than a third of the Lakers' 34 points.
“I just wanted it so, so bad,” said Bryant, whose place in the game makes no allowance for performance anxiety.
At 8:53 of the third quarter, the Celtics took a 13-point lead. As Boston was playing without its starting center and best interior defender, Kendrick Perkins, there’d be no way for the Lakers to live this down. That went double for Bryant. Sure, the Celtics ran two and three defenders at him. So what else was new?
Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau had an inspired defensive scheme, not to mention some inspired players. Again, no surprises. The Celtics were up 57-53 going into the fourth quarter. “It was exactly the type of game that we wanted,” said Rivers.
Which is to say, ugly. Actually, it was the greatest ugly game I’ve ever seen. Somehow, the Lakers would win a championship shooting 32 percent from the field.
But even as he faltered, Bryant got a lot of help. There was Artest — “the most valuable player tonight,” said Phil Jackson — who scored 20 points while holding Paul Pierce to 18. There was Pau Gasol — who also had a case of nerves — but still tallied 19 points and 18 rebounds, nine on the offensive glass. Derek Fisher nailed a 3 that tied the game at 64. Then there was Kevin Garnett, whose contribution to Laker Nation is not to be underestimated. With Boston down a big body, Garnett grabbed all of three boards. For the second time in as many games, he failed to get a single offensive rebound.
Still, eventually, Bryant came to his own defense. He conned Ray Allen into fouling him in the act behind the 3-point line. Points were precious and few Thursday night, and Bryant was nine of 11 from the line in the second half. Finally, he pulled up on Ray Allen for a 17-footer. There was 5:22 left, and for the first time all night, he looked like Kobe Bryant.
One more thing. For the seventh time in as many games, victory went to the team with more rebounds. Bryant had 15. That was more than enough for to earn him another Finals MVP trophy — and to change his mood.
In the interview room, someone asked what his fifth title meant to him, individually.
“Just one more than Shaq,” he said. “You can take that to the bank. You know how I am. I don’t forget anything.”
Actually, that’s part of Bryant’s genius, the ability to take everything personally, to keep a running score with rivals real and imagined. He didn’t care about the Lakers-Celtics rivalry? Are you kidding? Every time he puts on the uniform, he’s playing for posterity.
“I was just lying to you,” he said. “... You guys know what a student I am of the game. I know every series that the Lakers have played in. I mean, I was just a Laker nut, and I know every Celtics series, every statistic. It meant the world to me.”
Well, now that you’re being straight with us, I asked, how beat up are you?
“I’m obviously going to have to look at the knee and figure some things out,” he said. “I can’t play a whole season the way it is now. ... Same thing with the finger. Without the tape, I can’t grip a basketball. There’s some things I’ll have to figure out in the offseason.”
Are these matters that can be surgically corrected? Or do you have to have to modify the way you play as you age?
“It’s just an injury,” he said. “That’s what drove me nuts and made this even sweeter…Everybody talking about, ‘He’s old. He’s old.’ I was hurt. ‘ I drained my knee and all of a sudden (I’m) reeling off 30-point games… and everybody said how young I looked.”
I remind him that he’s played more minutes of pro basketball, way more, than anybody his age ever has. He’ll soon be a very old 32.
“You want to start my motivation for next season?”
He was still holding his sparkly little girls, still smiling. Or was he?
“Don’t start with me right now,” said Kobe Bryant.
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