Even when the going is good during the postseason, Kobe Bryant isn’t exactly chatty when he steps to the postgame podium.
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And when the going gets tough, well, Bryant’s interviews take on the tenor of a wisdom tooth extraction.
After the Lakers’ Game 1 win, Bryant joked with reporters about his occasionally surly demeanor during his playoff press conferences. After the Celtics evened the series with a 103-94 win in Game 2, Bryant’s surliness was no laughing matter.
"It’s a series," Bryant said, trying — and failing — to hide his disappointment behind a monotone delivery and a scarcity of words. "You’re trying to stay even keel. You don’t get too high, don’t get too low after a win or a loss. You just go into the next one and take care of business."
The playoffs are supposed to be when Kobe’s doin’ work. But Game 2 was more of a working vacation for Bryant, as he played just over 34 minutes (the least of any of the Lakers’ starters) due to some uncharacteristic — and some might argue, controversial — foul trouble.
Bryant picked up his third foul with 3:20 left in the second quarter when Ray Allen channeled all his training from "He Got Game" and got the refs to hit Bryant with a — to use Lakers head coach Phil Jackson’s favorite word when describing Sunday night’s officiating — "dubious" offensive foul. His fourth apparently came for being in the general vicinity of Rajon Rondo when the Celtics point guard dove out of bounds for a loose ball in the third quarter. And his fifth was another offensive foul, coming on the Lakers’ first possession of the fourth quarter, with the Celtics holding a 74-72 lead.
As a result, when Bryant wasn’t just another millionaire sitting courtside at Staples Center, he was unable to exhibit his usual aggressiveness on either end of the court. On offense, his forays into the paint were tentative as he looked to avoid contact, rather than initiate it in an attempt to get to the free-throw line. And just when the Lakers needed Bryant to tighten his defense on the suddenly unstoppable Rondo, the threat of a sixth foul and an early seat on the bench gave the Celtics point guard all the room he needed to change the course of the series.
"You’ve just got to be careful," said Bryant, clearly no more interested in expounding on the officiating than he was on any other topic. "I don’t expect to be picking up five fouls the next game."
Jackson, on the other hand, never needs much encouragement to expound on the officiating. And Sunday night, he appeared fully prepared to make out a check to NBA commissioner David Stern.
"I wasn’t happy with those foul calls," Jackson said. "Those were unusual calls. But he tried to play aggressively. Got called for it. Tried to limit his game a little bit because they were coming at him, taking charges, and it really changed the complexion of this game."
While the refs may have played a part in taking Bryant out of the game (just like they did with Allen in Game 1), the Celtics’ defense deserves its fair share of the credit for Bryant’s 8-of-20 shooting night.
Allen’s record-setting offensive performance overshadowed the sterling defensive job he did on Bryant. And when you consider Allen was largely responsible for checking Bryant for much of the game, his eight 3-pointers become all the more impressive.
With Allen consistently funneling Bryant to his left, the Lakers star couldn’t get to the basket with the same ease he managed in Game 1. And when Bryant did make his way into the paint, the Celtics doubled him aggressively, forcing him into five turnovers.
"Well, they got on him and made him go left all the time," Jackson said. "They were not letting him come back to his right hand, shoving him to the left and then going to help when he started to push the ball. That changes things up for him."
Despite the early struggles and the late foul trouble, Bryant was still in position to deliver one of his patented fourth-quarter finishes. He reentered the game with 6:12 left and the score tied at 85-85 and promptly banked home the go-ahead shot, drawing a foul in the process and completing the three-point play. The next possession, Bryant hit a fadeaway from the baseline and it looked like the game’s greatest closer was preparing to close the door on the Celtics.
But that’s where the heroics ended. Thanks to his teammates’ bad decisions with the ball and Bryant’s bad aim from the perimeter, the Celtics went on an 11-0 run. Bryant (and the Lakers, for that matter) didn’t score for the next 4:28, and by the time Bryant finally got a 3-pointer to drop, Boston had a 98-93 lead and was well on its way to stealing home-court advantage from L.A.
"Well, we’ve got to go into Boston and win," Bryant said.
"It’s the most important game," he later added. "Game 1 was the most important. Then Game 2 was the most important. Now it’s Game 3. It’s just the next game, simple as that."
It might not be that simple. Because for the first time in a month-and-a-half, Bryant has to bounce back from an off night.
Sunday night marked the end of perhaps the most prolonged run of postseason greatness in recent memory. It was just the second time in Bryant’s last 13 playoff games that he failed to score 30 points; the only other time he failed to hit that milestone (in the Lakers’ Game 2 win over the Suns in the Western Conference finals), he more than compensated by dishing out 13 assists to go with his 21 points.
The last time Bryant looked this mortal was after Game 4 of the Lakers’ first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, when no less an authority than TNT analyst and Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley declared Bryant to have lost a step.
Of course, look at how he responded to that. In typical Kobe fashion — with action, not words.