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Bryant is, as always, the difference maker

May 28, 2008|Bill Plaschke

SAN ANTONIO -- Yes, it was a foul. No, it didn't matter.

Let's get this straight once and for all, before anyone goes into the summer thinking that Tuesday's clock-mangling, late-wilting Lakers were also lucky.

They weren't. The blown call on the final play of the 93-91 Lakers victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals simply evened out the blown call of a few seconds earlier.

Yes, Derek Fisher clearly fouled Brent Barry before his final three-point attempt.

No, it didn't matter because the Spurs shouldn't have even been in that position, the officials failing to recognize that Fisher's previous jumper with 6.9 seconds left hit the rim, failing to give the Lakers a fresh shot clock.

That forced the Lakers to take a quick jumper that clanged away, giving the Spurs their last chance.

Understand? Two bad calls equals no bad calls. The difference in this game wasn't in Barry's 24-foot jumper or in the 24-second shot clock.

The difference was in No. 24, period.

Yeah, the guy who missed that quick jumper, the guy who missed a wild layup a few seconds earlier, the guy who was actually scolded by Phil Jackson for being too aggressive.

Nobody is talking about it. Nobody was thinking about it. Even the man himself seemed surprised to be asked about it.

But look closer and see that a night when he missed more than half his shots was yet another testament to the greatness of Kobe Bryant.

"C'mon," said Lamar Odom, laughing. "You don't even have to ask about that."

On nights like Tuesday, when Lakers hustle and depth and balance steal the headlines, Bryant is often taken for granted.

But it is nights like Tuesday when Bryant is often most effective.

No, he didn't win the game in the end. He won it in the second quarter, and third quarter, and fourth quarter, again and again and again.

By my count, from late in the second quarter until the final frantic clock, Bryant made eight plays that either broke a tie or stole momentum.

In a game the Lakers never trailed, Bryant's brilliance kept it that way.

In a game that the Spurs continually pushed the Lakers to the brink, Bryant was always the Laker who pushed back.

And in a game when he did not shoot one free throw -- 29 shots with guys hanging all over him and he doesn't shoot one free throw? -- it was Bryant's cool that led to the Lakers cool.

Two games in San Antonio, one free throw for one of the most consistently fouled men in the NBA, and the fiery Bryant showed none of the temper that could have hurt his team or his game.

No comment on no fouls?

"Not without getting fined, no," Bryant said.

Your philosophy here?

"Just let it go, nothing you can do about it," Bryant said. "You try to shoot through it and see if you can't make a couple of them."

The league has obviously decided that Bryant shot too many free throws in the previous two series, and they were going to officiate him differently from others, perhaps ignoring the first bump, and only whistling a complete mauling.

"It is impossible to take 29 shots and not be fouled, but tonight was one of those exceptions, I guess," Jackson said.

It's impossible not to notice that, on nights like Tuesday, it appears Bryant just will not let them lose.

"We responded every time that they came in and tied the ballgame," Jackson said. "Most of it was Kobe responding to it."

In the second quarter, the Spurs fought back from an early double-digit deficit to tie the score, turning the fans at the AT&T Center into a screaming and stomping mob.

Bryant calmly dribbled down, sank a jumper, and the Lakers led by six points at halftime.

In the late minutes of the third quarter, the Spurs tied the score again amid more noise and music and wildness.

Bryant calmly dribbled into double coverage and found Pau Gasol for a layup, then about 30 seconds later picked up a long rebound and turned it into a reverse fastbreak dunk.

And when the Spurs pulled back within one point in the final 1 minute 32 seconds of the quarter?

Another Bryant dunk, this time after driving the baseline around three Spurs.

"There's something Kobe has that even some of the great ones don't have" Odom said. "It's just like he can will the ball into the basket."

Remember earlier in these playoffs when an amazed Odom called him "Kobe-Wan Kenobi"?

On Tuesday night, he called him that again, it was that kind of game.

Fast forward to the fourth quarter, Bryant re-entered the game with 10 minutes remaining and the Lakers ahead by only two points.

He hit a quick jump shot to make a four-point lead, then hit another jump shot to return the lead to four points.

"I knew I had to get something going and knock down a couple of shots, give us a little breathing room, to give us a little more confidence," Bryant said.

Confidence found. Victory discovered. The only thing unfair about it was that the Lakers had Kobe Bryant, and the Spurs did not.

--

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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