Kobe wins despite unfamiliar struggle
LOS ANGELES -- This was a moment Kobe Bryant was built to own, a stage he was born to command.
His legacy, his long journey, all building to what should have been an easy bow on the night the Los Angeles Lakers clinched their 16th NBA title.
Instead, it was a heave: every inch a grind, every step painful.
Bryant usually rises in these moments, drawing from an unearthly well few others have access to. But he never found that place Thursday. He only found a way to win.
He won with defense and rebounding and hustle. He won on guts and will, carried by a trust in his teammates we never knew ran so deep.
"You know," he said, "I just wanted it so bad. I wanted it so, so bad. And on top of that, I was on 'E.' I was really, really tired.
"The more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me. I'm just glad that my teammates really got us back in the game."
Bryant has carried them so many times, to wins and championships and heights they could never go without him.
Los Angeles Lakers
This season, he has carried them on one knee, half an ankle and with eight fingers.
On Thursday, it was time for them to carry him. Not all the way to the championship, but back to the point where he could win it by making eight of his nine free throws in the final 8:46, and then, finally, a soft jumper over Ray Allen to give the Lakers a 68-64 lead with 5:22 to go.
For three quarters Bryant had been off. Stunningly off. Moving too fast, trying too hard, his will getting in his way.
"He was playing a little too fast," said Derek Fisher, his longtime friend and now fellow five-time champion. "He was going and he was seeing things that he wanted to do, but it was like he was a step-and-a-half too quick to get there.
"He just had to slow himself down."
Bryant entered the fourth quarter having made only five of his 20 shots and seemed as befuddled as anyone. The Celtics were cutting off his drives to the basket. His shots weren't falling. His legs felt weak.
"I think the team was shook, for a lack of a better word, because they've never seen Kobe struggle like that in a game of this magnitude," Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw said.
If there was an answer, it wasn't coming swiftly. So instead of searching, Bryant listened.
His wife, Vanessa, came over to the Lakers' bench at the start of the fourth quarter and whispered something in his ear.
"I just told him that I loved him," Vanessa Bryant said afterward, as her husband exhaled on the podium. "And that it was so close he could almost taste it."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson gave him a moment to compose himself, sitting him out for the first 53 seconds of the fourth quarter.
When Bryant returned, it was still a grind, but he had found a new resolve. His teammates, once derided and decried as tag-alongs, had kept the Lakers in it. With hustle and offensive rebounds and a defensive effort unlike any they'd ever summoned, they rose.
With 9:56 to go, Bryant lay flat on his back. He'd been knocked to the ground by Allen at the end of a fast break started off of his own inexplicable turnover, then was whistled for a blocking foul.
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Jordan Farmar walked over to help him up. Bryant, still gathering himself and his frustrations, reached out his hand and let Farmar lift him to his feet.
"I just said, 'Just keep playing, just don't dwell on negatives,'" Farmar said. "We couldn't have any of our energy drained by negativity. We needed everything we could do in a positive fashion. So we had to just try to pick him up."
Bryant rose. He found enough of his game, and enough trust in his teammates, to win his fifth title.
He finished with 23 points and 15 rebounds and was named the MVP of the Finals for the second straight year. But there was no easy bow at the end.
Every second of this was a grind -- past physical pain, past frustration, past shock at his own shortcomings.
But because of that struggle, he might have reached a new place.
In a moment he was built to own, on a stage he was born to command, Bryant stood arm-in-arm with his teammates as a champion.
"Our whole thing, the whole game, was trust," Luke Walton said. "Trust each other, trust your teammates, trust everybody.
"It's been a slow process, but it started right around when Pau [Gasol] got here. I think right now [Bryant] has more trust in his teammates than he's ever had before."Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngles.com.