Reporting from Boston —
Dressed in black again. Head resting wearily in his giant hands again. Answers dripping in sarcasm again.
As Kobe Bryant emerged from another terse interview in another uncomfortable interview room Saturday, I followed him down a TD Garden hallway.
"What's wrong with you?" I said. "You've been acting strange the entire Finals. You look hurt. You look like you're not having any fun. And you look like you can't close games."
"You know me better than to ask me those questions," he said.
"Is your knee bothering you again?"
"I swear, my knee is fine."
"So what's happening to you in the fourth quarter?"
"Haven't you seen them guarding me with four people?"
"The Lakers can't win unless you can close out these games."
"It worked the other night when Fish got off."
"It can't work like that consistently, and you know it."
"It will happen for me, other guys will start making their shots, I'll get a little space, I'll be fine."
"Are you sure you're not wiped out?"
Bryant stopped, turned to me, eyes suddenly bright, smile suddenly peeking out from underneath a 2-week-old mask.
"They think I can't do this for two more wins?"
Then he laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
* * *
So Kobe Bryant is not tired or hurt or scared or even worried. So what's wrong with me and everyone else who is?
The Lakers need only to win two of three games against the Boston Celtics to claim their second consecutive championship, and their leader seems more than capable of taking them there.
Bryant is averaging 28.3 points and 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the Finals while playing more than any aging Celtic at 40 minutes per game. He knows how to fit championship rings. He knows how to finish championship series. He obviously thinks it's not going to be a problem.
So what's my problem? Like Bryant said, how can I ask him those questions?
Well, the fact is that if the Finals ended today in a draw, the Lakers' most valuable player would be Pau Gasol, not Kobe Bryant, and I don't believe it's possible for the Lakers to win a championship series in which Bryant is not their best player.
Then, well, there's that fact that the game's best closer hasn't closed anything since finishing off Phoenix for the conference championship a couple of weeks ago, and I know the Lakers also cannot win a title without at least one grand Kobe finish.
More compelling, perhaps, is that the Celtics agree with me.
"We think Kobe is due for a breakout game," said Tony Allen, the bench guy who has been his defensive nemesis so far. "I know we're going to be prepared for it."
I think he is overdue for that kind of game. And although we know how Bryant feels about it, I think history says it's not going to be so easy.
Remember how the Celtics shut him down two years ago? Since Game 2 of this series, the Celtics' defense is doing the same thing at the most important of times. The Lakers' closer is getting closed.
In the last two games, in the fourth quarter, Bryant has made three baskets. Combined. He is three for 12, far below his normal shooting percentage, not even close to his normal finishing percentage.
In one of those games, as Bryant was quick to note, all of the extra attention on him during that period led to Derek Fisher's heroics. But somehow, I just don't think Fisher is going coast to coast again this century. And at some point, once again, Bryant is going to have to figure out how to do it himself.
He has to figure it out with a sore knee, and wrecked finger, and weary legs. He has to figure it out with the Celtics having realized that Ron Artest can't beat them and Lamar Odom won't beat them. He has to figure it out during the final draining lap of the marathon, shrugging off the age and affliction and, yes, the physical Allen.
To win under these conditions would make this Bryant's greatest championship yet. Yet even his calm coach realizes the turmoil involved.
"They like to get Tony Allen in there to make him really have to work, get a body on him," Phil Jackson said. "I've got to find a little space and time for him to give him some rest in that situation so he can come back with renewed energy. To have that kind of energy to finish a game out is important to us, and we've got to get that back."
Yes, the Lakers have to get the fourth-quarter Bryant back, or they are going to give their title back. They just don't need Bryant to close a game, they need him to close a championship.
"It's going to be fine," he said Saturday, still laughing, disappearing into a rainy Boston afternoon, not an umbrella in sight.
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