Commentary

Kobe Bryant faces now-or-never game

His play during the rest of the NBA Finals will shape the way he'll be remembered

Originally Published: June 14, 2010
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- The question has hung over the series like the feel of seven Long Island Iced Teas the morning after: When is Kobe Bryant going to have a Kobe Bryant game?

He finally had it in Game 5. And he left the TD Garden -- and Boston -- with nothing to show for it.

Which begs the next question: Have we seen the Kobe Bryant yet that we all felt would be the difference in this series?

Or better: Where's that Kobe at?

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonAfter 38 points and a loss, Kobe might have a right to look worried.

Since the Finals began, we've all been waiting for Kobe to go off in such a way that the series would never be the same. The world had been waiting for him to have that game. That KOBE game. The game that brings flashbacks to Jordan. The game in which he leaves blood, not just sweat, on the floor. The game that leaves the Celtics dazed and confused and wondering "Now what in the hell are we going to do?"

On Sunday night, Kobe erupted. Had what everyone thought was the game that would finally shape the series in the Lakers' favor. Instead, the 38 points he scored didn't amount to anything but an attractive (and misleading) stat line. Basically, what he did in that 92-86 loss -- as crazy as this sounds -- wasn't enough. Wasn't even close.

Which means this and this only: The next one or two games are the most important games in Kobe Bryant's career.

You'd think the defining moment for a player of Bryant's stature (arguably one of the top 10 players ever) wouldn't come 14 years into what already is a unanimous first-ballot HOF career. You'd think a guy whose game is so adequate he can make an addict quit wouldn't have to keep proving himself to the world.

But you'd be so wrong.

Starting the second Game 5 ended Sunday night, the reshaping of Kobe's legacy began. And now we have a much better idea of what he needs to do this week, how far he needs to pull the Lakers along, to get that legacy into the shape we've always thought it would be.

"I didn't like what I saw," NBA TV's Sekou Smith said afterward. "He went off, but it amounted to what? Nothing. After every game they've lost, [Kobe] has said, 'It's not about me or the offense; it's our D.' The Lakers' defense. That's been the problem. He's been telling us that, but we haven't been listening."

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonRay Allen and the rest of the Celtics haven't exactly shut him down, but they haven't let him loose yet, either.

That point became clear in the first six minutes of the third quarter, when Kobe turned into the Kobe that those who love him love to death, and those who hate him hate to see.

He scored 17 points in that time span, on pace to break Isiah Thomas' NBA Finals record of 25 points in a quarter. But even while Kobe was hitting shots that Paul Pierce said afterward were the most difficult shots he'd ever seen anyone he was guarding hit, the Celtics' lead increased.

Any other time when "Kobe Goes Kobe" like he did at the start of the third quarter Sunday, substitutions occur, clipboards are slammed, bench players move farther away from the coach and timeouts are called. But on Sunday night, the exact opposite happened. Kobe put on a Kobe-like performance without the Kobe-like impact. "Kobe Being Kobe" had no effect on the Celtics.

I received a text Sunday night from author and Lakers aficionado Isaac Perry, who has written several major feature stories on Kobe for various magazines and websites over the years, as well as a book on Kobe for Nike. The text said: "I see Kobe's frustration. Regardless of what happens in these Finals, he's going to have to find a way to transfer his postseason passion to his teammates. Where is their heart?"

Here's the heart of the matter: a stat that looks at how a performance like this can get lost and why these next two games could define Kobe's career. In the fourth quarters of the first four games in the Finals -- 48 minutes of action -- the Lakers had 82 possessions. In those possessions, Bryant had 57 touches. And within those 57 touches, he was 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) from the floor, scoring only 28 points.

In the fourth quarter of Game 5, he was 2-for-6 (33.3 percent), scoring nine points. In the last five minutes of the game, when the Lakers were down by as many as eight points, he had zero field goals and five points from the line. Making his game total of 38 points pointless. Because at that point of the game, it's about more than points. For Bryant, it's about an imprint and impact. It's about the mark he leaves on games after they're over.

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AP Photo/Michael DwyerSometimes, Kobe must feel like a solitary man in these Finals.

A mark that, even when he's played brilliantly in the Finals, we have yet to see. The Kobe Bryant that scares the "Shuttlesworth" out of opponents has still not shown up.

Which is why the next one (or two) game(s) have meaning beyond whether or not the Celtics are crowned champions at Kobe's (and the Lakers') expense. He's discovered his nemesis. It isn't one single player; instead, it's an entire team. Proof? 2008. More proof? 2010. The Celtics have become the Rafa to Kobe's Roger.

His inability, so far, to single-handedly be who we know he can be and do what we know he's capable of doing is making Tom Thibodeau look like the Buddy Ryan of basketball. It's making the Allens (Ray and Tony) look like Darren and Darrelle (Sharper and Revis). It's making the Celtics look like they need to put out a "Kobe Rules" book written by Dan Shaughnessy.

And just as Jordan found a way to overcome his kryptonite, so must Kobe. Two games from the title (one game from losing it), he needs to get the Celtics shook. He needs to be in the back of their minds, making them fearful that that Kobe game is about to happen … and there won't be a damn thing they can do to stop it.

It's beyond weathering the storm. It's beyond survival. Beyond the much-hyped revenge. Now, for Kobe, it's about one man taking the game's G.O.A.T. title (not just the NBA title) personally, and challenging it to the point that MJ as the Greatest Of All Time is either disproved or put into serious question.

It's about Kobe realizing that what happens next might ultimately be how he will be remembered. In the screenplay of his career, the outcome of the next one or two games is the beginning of how his film will end. Because this -- this moment -- is all he has left.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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