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BILL PLASCHKE

Bryant's overtime becomes sore spot

May 12, 2008|Bill Plaschke

SALT LAKE CITY -- First, the back spasms.

Then, the blame spasms.

Only the Lakers, it seems, are incapable of walking away from one of the most inspirational playoff games in several seasons without somebody dissing somebody.

And only on the Lakers, it seems, could a newly crowned MVP once again find himself smack in the middle of the smack.

Playing through three hours worth of back pain that literally dropped him to his knees on a Sunday afternoon here, Kobe Bryant was splendidly, brilliantly tough in the Lakers' 123-115 overtime playoff loss to the Utah Jazz.

But he was also, like, weird.

Bryant valiantly carried the Lakers through regulation's final five minutes, using his head and his heart and the best Mother's Day passing that didn't involve a brunch plate.

But once he pulled his team into the overtime, he seemingly abandoned them there. He insisted on shooting even as his wracked body was betraying those shots. He forgot about passing even though that is what the Lakers had done best.

The Lakers survived regulation thanks to him, but lost in overtime seemingly because of him, and are now stuck in a frustrating two-games-apiece tie against a team that is fortunate to have lasted this long.

And afterward, the confusion became even more confusing.

Coach Phil Jackson blamed the overtime problems on Bryant's teammates for not working hard enough to get the ball.

"I was angry at his teammates for dropping the ball in his lap," Jackson said. "I felt guys just bailed out on him."

Later, Jackson said that "bailed out" was perhaps too strong of a phrase, but the message had been sent.

And most of Bryant's teammates received it with wonder.

They took exactly three of the team's 10 shots in overtime, and it was their fault?

The team had zero assists in the overtime, after Bryant had six assists in the fourth quarter alone, and that was on them?

"I wasn't hesitant," said Pau Gasol, who muscled back from his weak Game 3 to regain the paint. "I just tried to help out. The ball got stuck too much. We took too many jumpers."

Lamar Odom, who also showed up strong, shook his head and smiled.

"P.J. is the coach, he's watching from the sidelines, he sees things different than we do," he said. "And sometimes P.J. just says things to get us going."

Sasha Vujacic, who played big minutes and made some big shots, shrugged.

"I don't know what to say to that," he said. "I know sometimes Kobe just likes to take the game in his hands. It's normal."

In response to Jackson's assertion, Bryant explained, "He wants them to come to me, but come to me later in the offense, not right away and just stand around. That's something we talked about."

The only thing certain in the overtime, as Vujacic said, was Kobe Bryant being Kobe Bryant.

The problem is, the back spasms had turned him into something less than Kobe Bryant.

It was as if Bryant understood his limitations in the fourth quarter when the Lakers were still far behind. But once it appeared they could really win this game, he forgot about those limitations and tried to win it for them.

In the end, it was the Lakers' offense that needed ice bags.

"In the fourth quarter, everything was smooth," said Odom. "But in overtime, we just didn't get the shots we wanted."

Let's start with that fourth quarter.

In the final five minutes of regulation, after icing on the bench and collapsing on the court, Bryant directed a 12-point comeback that will rank among his finest Lakers moments.

He could barely walk, but, man, could he see. He had five brilliant assists during that time, finding Derek Fisher for three consecutive three-pointers, discovering Gasol for a dunk, hitting Odom for a game-tying trey.

"It was perfect out there," said Luke Walton.

Then came the overtime, and Bryant did a perfect 360, and I'm not talking about a dunk.

He stopped passing. He stopped looking. Even though his shot was obviously being altered by his soreness, he started shooting.

He missed a jumper. His layup attempt was blocked by Andrei Kirilenko.

After getting tangled up in a fight for a loose ball, he dropped to his knees in front of the Jazz bench; nobody pushed him, he just dropped in obvious pain.

At the time, there was 2:53 left in the overtime and the Jazz still led by only two points.

Bryant stood up and immediately began shooting again.

Kirilenko blocked another Bryant shot. Then Bryant missed a three-point attempt.

By then, the Jazz led by four points, and a Bryant layup pulled the Lakers back to within two.

Yet after the Jazz extended that lead to five, Bryant missed yet another layup, the lead was extended to seven, and that was that.

Fittingly, the last Lakers shot of the game was a Bryant airball.

"In the fourth quarter, we did a good job of spacing and finding the right spots," said Fisher. "In the overtime, we didn't keep that focus."

Afterward, all the focus was on the stat sheet, which showed Bryant making just one of seven shots in overtime, and only two of his final 13 shots overall.

It might have been a different story with more involvement from his teammates, who combined to make 12 of 17 shots in the fourth quarter.

Even during this spring of great teamwork, are the other Lakers still too deferential of Bryant during crunch time?

Or is Bryant still too headstrong, a guy who believes he can carry the team even on a badly aching back?

Whatever, Bryant was so sore late in the game, at one point it took two teammates to lift him off the floor.

But in the end, as the Lakers crumbled around him, he stood alone.

Maybe his teammates truly just weren't smart and strong enough to give him help.

Or maybe he didn't let them.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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