- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- When the closer isn't closing -- when the closer has a gimpy ankle and isn't even driving -- you don't need too many guesses to predict where the majority of the scrutiny is going.
Especially when the closer's name is Kobe Bryant.
Yet you're advised to look deeper when diagnosing the Los Angeles Lakers' latest 1-0 series deficit in the NBA playoffs. Don't simply settle for the Kobe Shot Too Much theory. Trust us: Bryant's rocky crunch time is not what cost them Game 1 of this second-round series against the dangerous Dallas Mavericks.
If you prefer to trust Phil Jackson, even he'll say the same.
"Here, guys, I'll give you some help," the Lakers' coach told his media audience late Monday night, sensing the inevitable focus on what Kobe did (29 shot attempts that included zero layups) and didn't do (zero assists to go with his 36 points).
"The game was won in the third quarter."
That's when the Mavs, down 16 after their suicidal finish to the first half and turnovers on their first three possessions of the second half, remembered that these Lakers don't step on throats like they used to and kept firing. That's when the Lakers, with an ideal opportunity to immediately demoralize a team that isn't exactly unfamiliar with playoff failure, let up yet again.
All of them.
"We don't do it purposely," Bryant said, "I assure you."
Purposely or not, this is apparently habit for this edition of the Lakers, who needlessly let the New Orleans Hornets hang around for six games in the first round and have heaped far greater peril upon themselves in Round 2, drifting into quick-shot mode and assuming Dallas would simply surrender as soon as things got a little ugly in Game 1.
A 1-0 deficit to the David West-less Hornets is one thing. A 1-0 deficit to the Mavs, who can actually do something with that lead even though they haven't had Caron Butler since Jan. 1, is something else entirely.
Which must be why Kobe, after first insisting that he doesn't "really see this [loss] as being a big deal,'' soon followed up with the admission that he feels "highly concerned."
"This team can beat us," Kobe conceded. "It's clear."
Bryant undoubtedly understands that the Mavs -- after all their postseason heartache since unraveling in the 2006 NBA Finals -- are reveling in their first nothing-to-lose series in a half-decade. For the first time since Dallas took a 2-0 lead in Miami and couldn't close, it is not weighed down by suffocating pressure. After the Mavs blew that 23-point lead in Portland in Game 4 and bounced back with two series-clinching wins in a first-round encounter with the Blazers that they were widely picked to lose, losing to the mighty Lakers would generate no lasting scorn. Not even back home, where the denizens of Big D have been waiting for another playoff crack at L.A. since the 1988 Western Conference finals that went seven games.
But now these Mavs are really loose. And growing in belief after draining nine big 3-pointers, watching Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood contain Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum inside and seeing Jason Kidd, at 38, hound Bryant into a frustrating finish to back up another big fourth quarter in these playoffs from Dirk Nowitzki.
Said Lakers guard Shannon Brown: "We let the snowball roll all the way down the hill."
Focus on Bryant's shot count as the chief culprit if you wish, but the fact is that Dallas doesn't dare believe that it has anything solved when it comes to Kobe, who still found a way to get free for a gorgeous look at a 3-pointer at the buzzer after Bryant had a hand in L.A.'s two crucial turnovers in the final 20.9 seconds.
"I thought Kobe's trey was in," Nowitzki admitted later in a Staples Center hallway.
Said Kidd: "When he shot it, I didn't look. I was going to listen to the crowd."
The research aces at ESPN Stats & Information report that Bryant, in the playoffs, has actually missed his past five tying or go-ahead shots from the field in the final 24 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime. In similar situations, Bryant couldn't connect in Game 6 last spring against Oklahoma City or Game 5 of the conference finals against Phoenix. And those misses were preceded by late clanks in 2009 in Game 3 of L.A.'s first-round series with Utah as well as Game 2 of the NBA Finals against Orlando.
Rest assured that the Mavs, though, will presume that all the above data only mean Bryant is due. And for all the external suspicion that Bryant's left ankle is still vulnerable -- thereby persuading him to hoist nine 3s and otherwise rely on his midrange game as opposed to attacking the rim -- it sure looked from press row as though he was suffering most from the affliction that so often plagues Nowitzki.
No one else to throw it to.
Gasol looked as lost/passive as you can while assembling a 15-point, 11-board, 7-assist evening. Ron Artest shot a wild 1-for-8 from the floor and did little beyond goading Nowitzki into a flailed elbow that drew a costly technical foul during the Mavs' composure crisis late in the first half.
Jackson, frankly, had an off night, too. The Zen Master left Kobe on the bench too long to start the fourth quarter -- even with Bryant's ankle in mind -- and made a costlier choice by putting Gasol on Nowitzki on a game-turning possession with 19.5 seconds to go. Gasol's silly over-the-back foul on the entry pass made Dirk's job a lot easier, sending his fellow Euro to the line, but perhaps Pau was so overzealous because he knew Nowitzki was shooting 5-for-5 when guarded by the Spaniard before that late tangle. Or simply because he wanted no part of Dirk facing him up that far away from the bucket, which is the unenviable position that Jackson put him in.
"S--- happens," Gasol said, dismayed by the whistle and generally stunned by the Lakers' various second-half malfunctions.
Worst of all? L.A. never established the guy who hurts Dallas more than any other Laker: Bynum. Bryant's very valid retort to the suggestion that he made the ball stick pointed out that L.A.'s second unit had the first 5:22 of the fourth, with Kobe and Gasol watching from the bench, to pound it into Bynum. Instead? Bynum was on the floor for 59 of the Lakers' 101 possessions but got a touch on a mere 18 of them. The same Bynum who rumbled for nearly 17 points and 12 boards against the Mavs in the regular season.
The reality for the two-time champs entering Wednesday's suddenly must-win Game 2 is that their three-peat formula just isn't mixing. The bench, aside from Odom, has been a season-long disappointment. Exploiting their usual size advantage has been harder in the playoffs than they envisioned. And they're still waiting, obviously, for the first vintage Kobe kill shot of the 2011 postseason to tie it all together.
Yet you came away from the latest dent to the Lakers' aura and reputation with the unmistakable feeling that more urgency, more focus, could have offset a lot of issues Monday night when the Lakers went up by 16.
You came away wondering whether the Lakers had learned anything from those two L's to the undermanned Hornets.
"I'm not so sure Dallas didn't outplay us, but I just felt like we gave it away," Jackson said.
4hEthan Sherwood Strauss
4hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
1hVince Masi, ESPN Stats & Information
8hArash Markazi and Ben Alamar