Never Give Bryant A Second Chance

The Washington Post's Michael Lee reports from Los Angeles on the Lakers' 103-98 victory over the Boston Celtics on Sunday night.Audio: Michael Lee/The Washington PostPhotos: Getty, AP, AFP, ReutersEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/
By Michael Wilbon
Monday, June 16, 2008

LOS ANGELES Only a complete fool would keep giving Kobe Bryant chances. It's like pitching to Babe Ruth with the bases loaded, like sticking your naked chin in the face of Joe Louis . . . or giving Tiger Woods one last chance to make a 12-foot putt on No. 18. You keep giving Kobe Bryant chances and he's going to, if not beat you, make you sweat profusely. The longer he's on the court, the longer he has a chance to beat you, even if you're the Celtics and you've got the better team and a 3-2 lead headed back to Boston for Games 6.

You let Kobe extend a series the way he did here Sunday night, and he'll open up a can of danger on you. No team has overcome a 3-1 series deficit to win the NBA Finals. But that's only because the team with the lead has killed off the challenger as soon as humanly possible. Championship teams don't let ordinary pros hang around, much less players as skilled as Kobe. Before you know it, you're a sprained ankle and a dislocated shoulder away from Game 7 and more drama than you want to have hanging around, even if you think the ghost of Red Auerbach is sitting up there on the back rim waiting to assist his old team.

And that's kind of where the Lakers and Celtics find themselves after the Lakers' 103-98 victory in Game 5. Not only did Boston's Kendrick Perkins not play Sunday, he likely will not play Tuesday in Game 6, either. If Perkins is on the bench, there goes one of Boston's big advantages. Perkins, along with Kevin Garnett, P.J. Brown and Leon Powe, has helped make the Lakers' big men look terribly soft and weak around the basket.

With Perkins out, the Celtics might be out of whack. The Lakers suddenly have room to maneuver. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom seem to stand taller. Kobe has room to drive. Even if Perkins doesn't play that many minutes, his 270 pounds tire you out after a while. He can foul you plenty and hard.

His very presence allows Garnett to play forward, not center, a not-so-subtle distinction that favors Garnett's frame and personality. How bad is Perkins's strained shoulder? "I don't know if it's going to be reevaluated," Coach Doc Rivers said. "I just didn't ask those questions. Obviously, it's not a great injury to have."

Asked if this means Garnett has to slide over to center, Rivers said, "It does at times, more than we would want, I can tell you that. But we have no choice, so yeah."

The question before the game was whether the Celtics would look at Perkins on the bench and have a greater sense of urgency about winning Game 5, of snuffing out the Lakers and Bryant as quickly as possible. "We need to play with one," Rivers said. "We didn't play with one until the second half the other night. We were fortunate to win the game. . . . We absolutely have to play that way now, from this point forward with the injuries. They're clearly mounting for us. But our team has been pretty good at gathering themselves and covering up for each other."

That conversation came moments before the Celtics went out and fell behind by 19 points. The Lakers stormed out like a defensive team blitzing the quarterback on every single play. They swarmed and attacked, nobody more than Bryant, who had 15 points in the first quarter. Kobe hit three three-pointers, drove to the basket with great force and smiled when he sat down on the bench.

It came as no great surprise, apparently, to Coach Phil Jackson, who said, "I felt the veteran players on our team responded really well [to blowing a 24-point lead in Game 4]. . . . The light was back in their eyes, and they're ready to go. . . . One of the things we're trying to do is just keep thoughts focused on what's happening right now. That's the thing you keep warning players about: . . . 'Just be focused here, now, not anything else beyond this, not even the trip back tomorrow to Boston.' "

If Jackson had some convincing to do, it wasn't with Bryant. The star and his coach seemed ready for whatever needed to be done to get the rest of the Lakers going. "If they're aggressive and energized, and playing the kind of basketball that we need to play, then he can sit back and be a facilitator. If they need [him] in attack mode with the ball, then that's where he's going to take the bull by the horns and start playing ball the way he can, and only he can."

In other words, Kobe was going to try to do it all, be it all, score and pass. He did that successfully in Game 5, brilliantly in fact, to send the series back to Boston, where the Celtics have the lead but the Lakers have Kobe. Maybe 3-2 isn't that big a deficit after all.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company