Celtics are not easily rattled by Bryant

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010

BOSTON -- Kobe Bryant doesn't emit smoke from his nostrils when he angrily flares them after hitting one of his ridiculous, step-back, fadeaway jumpers. Fire doesn't leave his mouth when he pushes his mandible forward, placing his bottom teeth in front of his uppers, after nailing another high-degree-of-difficulty shot.

Over his 14-year career, Bryant has mastered the art of demoralizing jumpers -- the buzzer-beater to win the game, the impossible desperation heave with the clock winding down. But while Bryant has been described as cold-blooded, and he calls himself Black Mamba, after the deadly snake, the Boston Celtics still view him, and treat him, as a human capable of mortal performances.

They respect his ability to go on a rampage and focus more on containment of an otherwise unstoppable force. And, having already dealt with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard this postseason, the Celtics don't get rattled when Bryant sucks the air from the building with a turnaround jumper or contested three-pointer.

"We just play our team defense, and we have to be able to play through his greatness," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said of Bryant on Friday, the day after his team evened the NBA Finals at two games apiece with a 96-89 victory. "We've had the luxury of saying that now every series. In Round 1, we said, 'Hey, we have to have the luxury of playing through Dwyane's greatness.' The second was LeBron's greatness. The third one was Dwight Howard's greatness. Now we're saying it again, and we've said it every game. Don't overreact to great shots."

Bryant scored 33 points in the Lakers' Game 4 loss, tying his playoff career-high with six three-pointers. He went on a barrage with three consecutive three-pointers in the third period, huffing and puffing as if he could blow down TD Garden.

What the shooting display masked was how the Celtics had sent two defenders to keep Bryant from getting to his desired spots, how Tony Allen or Ray Allen crowded him, sliding their feet to cut off his drives to the basket altogether. Of his 10 field goals on Thursday, only two were within 15 feet. Bryant also committed seven turnovers (mostly trying to pass out of the double team), with Rajon Rondo taking his last miscue to the basket for a game-clinching layup.

"That's just me playing like crap," Bryant said of his turnovers, but he could have easily been describing his postseason struggles against the Celtics. Bryant has gotten his points, but he has exhausted himself in pursuit.

After a difficult Finals appearance two years ago -- when he averaged 25.7 points on 40.5 percent shooting as the Lakers lost in six games -- Bryant has improved his scoring average slightly (28.2), but continues to shoot a low percentage (40.9).

The strategy of Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau is not to deny Bryant the ball, but to make him uncomfortable when he gets it. Bryant has attempted 97 shots in this series -- 36 more than anyone else -- but he has only taken eight of them uncontested. In limiting Bryant's space to shoot, the Celtics have led Bryant to make more nasty glares at his teammates for not recognizing the times when he gets free.

"They're a great scheming team," Bryant said of the Celtics. "They have a strategy in place, and they execute extremely well. I feel pretty comfortable. It's just great defense. It's right up there with the best of them."

Two years ago, the Celtics rotated defenders on Bryant, using Pierce, Ray Allen, James Posey and on rare occasions, Tony Allen. But with Posey gone and Pierce focusing on Ron Artest more, the assignment has fallen on the Allens, with Tony Allen having more success because of his athleticism. Bryant is just 5-for-19 with Tony Allen defending him, forcing Bryant to his weak hand and getting physical at times. "He steps on his right hand really well, makes him go left and keeps [himself] on the floor instead of getting up [in the air] on the pump fakes," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.

Bryant rarely gives his individual defenders credit for disrupting him, acting as if they don't exist. He has belittled Shane Battier, Raja Bell and other alleged "Kobe Stoppers," but he offered praise for Tony Allen. "He does a great job," Bryant said. "He plays hard, he competes, and he's a good solid defender. I'm enjoying it."

Bryant appeared to aggravate the right knee he had drained earlier this postseason, but while it seemed to affect him, Bryant claimed he was fine. Jackson said Bryant's sluggish finish, in which he missed nine of his final 14 shots, had more to do with fatigue than the Celtics or his knee. Bryant played all 24 minutes in the second half. "He was tired," Jackson said. "I thought he had to work too hard over the course of the game, and he couldn't finish it out the way he wanted to finish it out."

Though Pierce hasn't found himself guarding Bryant too often, he said the Celtics have been trained to defend the Lakers go-to player. "We played against the best -- right there is the cream of the crop," Pierce said of Bryant. "I think between Wade and LeBron, they're special in their own right. But those series definitely helped us prepare team-wise to load up and be ready for him. Those guys definitely prepared us for that."

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