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BILL PLASCHKE

Kobe Bryant's weariness should make Lakers fans wary

June 10, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM ORLANDO, FLA. — As Pau Gasol lay sprawled on his belly in a cramped and jeering gym late Tuesday, gasping, sweating, needing a hand, a teammate walked past.

Kobe Bryant never even slowed down.

He wouldn't pick him up. He couldn't pick him up. He couldn't pick any of them up.

The Laker who can run through walls has suddenly hit one, hard, and an entire team has been left with a bloody nose and splitting headache.

The Lakers gave away an NBA Finals game they could have stolen Tuesday, losing to the Orlando Magic, 108-104, as painfully as Bryant was losing his breath.

The Lakers endured swish after swish against what became the hottest-shooting team in NBA Finals history, yet still tied it up in the final three minutes.

Then Bryant gasped.

The Lakers still had a chance in the final minute, trailing by a basket with their best player dribbling the ball.

Then Bryant coughed.

The ending was remarkable in that, this being the first Finals win in Magic franchise history, Amway Arena was filled with falling confetti and the incessant wail of a foghorn.

It was also remarkable in that the game's best closer was just too darn exhausted to do anything about it.

After scoring 17 points in the first quarter, Bryant scored just 14 the rest of the game. That's a lack of energy.

He missed half of his 10 free throws, clanking one in the final minute that could have pulled the Lakers to within a point. That's a lack of legs.

He then committed a costly mistake with the Lakers trailing by two, losing the ball while trying to dribble through a double team. That's just pure weariness.

It was that play, with 28.7 seconds left, that ended with Gasol on the floor and Bryant too worn to even bend over and lift him.

It was that play that led to two Mickael Pietrus free throws that clinched it.

Well, OK, as a last sign of sluggishness, there was also Bryant's wildly missed three-point attempt in the final seconds, one of 14 misses in 25 attempts that led to his worst 31-point game of the season.

Bryant was whipped, and I wasn't the only one who thought so, as Coach Phil Jackson sat him on the bench for nearly the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.

"I wanted to move it even farther," Jackson said of the benching, which probably drew cries of protest from everyone but Bryant. "Seven-minute mark is what I wanted to move it to, but it looked like we were going to have to get back."

So, then, Jackson thought he looked tired?

"Yeah," Jackson said. "[But] he'll say no."

I asked Bryant and, yes, officially he said no. But by his tiny smile -- one of the first of the series -- you knew he meant yes.

"I felt OK," he said.

So, I asked him, you were wiped out?

"I was fine," he said.

The Lakers coaches feel he expended too much energy too early, throwing up more shots in the first quarter -- 10 -- than any two players combined.

"He never really got in rhythm again the same way he was at that time," Jackson said

The Magic players felt it was their defense who shut him down and, indeed, amid a joyous vacation atmosphere, they sent players at him from teacups to flying toads.

"They threw the whole kitchen sink, and they did a great job staying on my body," Bryant said.

There is a third possibility for Bryant's fatigue, but it is too premature to ponder, and, for Laker fans, too painful to even consider.

Two months shy of his 31st birthday, three games into the most strenuous basketball series of his life, could Bryant be hitting a wall that will not disappear?

In three games, he has played 126 of 149 minutes while averaging 27 shots per game.

That's strenuous work for any player. That's downright hard labor for an aging star who works hard at both ends of the court and has even taken to coaching his team during timeouts.

Anybody else see him consulting Gasol with a whiteboard late in Tuesday's game?

Nobody in the NBA pushes their team like Bryant pushes the Lakers, and when that push diminishes to a shove like it did in the final three quarters Tuesday, well, everything collapses.

Defense suffers, and if you don't think Bryant's energy was missing there, well, the Magic had the best shooting first half in NBA playoff history (75%) after bricking its way through Los Angeles.

"They're doing a great job making adjustments, it's on us to make adjustments as well," Bryant said of the defense. "We've got to do a better job on the close-outs."

The Lakers' fourth quarter also suffers, because when the game's great closer is tired, the game closes on him.

In the fourth quarter Tuesday, Bryant made two of six shots while missing all three of his three-point attempts, and everyone in the gym could feel that extra step disappearing.

"It was disappointing," Bryant said. "I'm used to coming through in those situations, the team trusts me to come through in those situations, and it just didn't happen tonight."

After games, usually Bryant is the last Laker to meet the media, but on Tuesday, he was the first.

He dressed quickly, and left quickly, Game 4 coming up fast, in two days that perhaps feel like two minutes.

"Just got to bounce back," he said, disappearing into the night in search of that bounce.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Follow Plaschke at twitter.com/BillPlaschke.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Magic touch

Orlando, which shot 46.3% from the field and 35.8% from three-point range during the regular season, finally found its shooting touch in Game 3. Field- goal percentages in the Finals:

*--* GAME 1 FG% 3PT% Orlando 29.9 34.8 Lakers 46.1 33.3 GAME 2 FG% 3PT% Orlando 41.8 33.3 Lakers 46.2 33.3 GAME 3 FG% 3PT% Orlando 62.5 35.7 Lakers 51.3 34.8 *--*

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