- J.A. Adande, NBA
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ORLANDO -- Here it was, literally in Kobe Bryant's hands, the chance to turn this basketball into a gold trophy, an opportunity to tie the score or take the lead against the Orlando Magic with half a minute left, a shot at the historically insurmountable 3-0 advantage in the NBA Finals in his grasp.
He bobbled it. He lost it. Orlando's Mickael Pietrus grabbed it. Bryant had no choice but to foul him for two free throws that extended the Magic's lead to their eventual winning margin of four points.
Bryant was so mad at himself he ignored prone teammate Pau Gasol. Gasol had hit the deck to retrieve the ball after Dwight Howard poked it away as Bryant tried to split a double-team. Gasol instinctively passed to Kobe, the man three-quarters of the league would choose to have the ball in the final minute of a game.
Just not on Tuesday night. This time, given a reprieve on the same play, given another chance on a night of several crunch-time mistakes, Bryant couldn't even maintain possession. After the foul he stomped around, nearly stepping on Gasol, whom he never did offer a hand. He didn't pick his teammates up, he let his teammates down; whatever direction you want to use it was appropriate.
After Gasol stole an entry pass intended for Dwight Howard with 3½ minutes left, Bryant missed a drive on the other end. At the two-minute mark, Kobe missed a 3-pointer that could have given the Lakers the lead. With 59.8 seconds remaining, he missed one of two free throws. And in the Lakers' late, desperate flurry, he missed two more 3-pointers before he finally made a too-late layup with 0.5 seconds remaining.
You'd have to go back to Kobe's early years in the older-style Lakers uniforms -- when he was throwing up air balls against Utah in 1997 or missing potential icing free throws against San Antonio in 1999 -- to conjure up images of Bryant failing so badly in playoff crunch time. Since then, he's accumulated a clip reel heavy on the types of plays you see in the black-and-white commercials with the piano music.
"I'm used to coming through in those situations," said Bryant, the frozen mask he's put on for the past week replaced with a look of frustration, his fingers tapping on the table. "The team trusts me to come through in those situations, and it just didn't happen tonight."
Phil Jackson smiled when the scenario was put to him, offering a whimsical take on life.
"You know, we're all frail as humans," Jackson said.
Lamar Odom shrugged.
"It happens," he said.
It even happened to the greatest of them all, on the same end of the court in this same building, when Michael Jordan lost the ball to Nick Anderson's blind-side steal in the 1995 Eastern Conference finals. (Maybe it was a good idea to have Anderson on the court in the pregame introductions after all; I thought it would bring back too many bad vibes from those missed free throws in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals.)
Jordan's miscue fueled a summer of furious workouts (well, in between shooting scenes for "Space Jam"). We'll see what this prompts from Bryant. But he could learn from this game that exerting too much energy too soon could sap him down the stretch.
Bryant used up all his magic in the first quarter For the first six minutes of the game, he was content to let everyone else get their shots. Then he decided he needed some alone time with the ball. Starting at the 5:41 mark of the first quarter, he put up nine shots and scored 17 points over the next 5:10, culminating in a 3-pointer-plus-foul for a four-point play. He hit all manner of shots in between, managing to slip a glance to the corner of the court where Tiger Woods and Spike Lee were sitting after hitting an impossible 3-pointer.
Then he got as quiet as a country night. After taking his customary second-quarter rest, he did not score for 32 consecutive Lakers' possessions, even though the Magic made him work just as hard.
"I thought they really started coming hard at him," Jackson said. "Howard was consistently coming at him on shots, making it difficult. He never really got in rhythm again the same way."
Jackson said he thought Bryant tired, and even considered keeping him out for more than the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, but he had to send him back in after the Lakers fell behind by nine points.
After making seven of his first nine shots, Bryant made only four of his next 16, finishing with 31 points. He also missed five of his 10 free throws -- as many misses as Orlando's Dwight Howard had in 16 attempts.
Even on a night when the Magic set Finals records for shooting in a half (75 percent) and game (62.5 percent), the Lakers still could have won it with a few free throws here, or a few more entry passes to Gasol there (dude made 9-of-11 from the field, and Trevor Ariza winds up with two more shots than him?).
While rebounds weren't abundant on a night when the Lakers also made more than half their shots, Howard managed to collect 14, while no Laker had more than Ariza's seven.
It's one reason why the Lakers didn't want to pin this loss entirely on Bryant.
"We do everything together," Odom said. "That's why we made it this far. Win together, lose together. He's one guy I want to be in a foxhole with every time -- win, lose or draw, that's who I want to be with."
Still, Bryant has stumbled on his quest to get a championship sans Shaq. In Game 2, he got his shot blocked when he tried to be the hero against four defenders, and then let his man escape (after a Magic screen) for the potential game-winning alley-oop at the buzzer.
He now has become only the fourth player to rack up 100 points and 24 assists in the first three games of the NBA Finals. It used to be Shaquille O'Neal would pile up the big numbers, then Bryant would deliver the knockout blow. As he's still finding out even in the late stages of his journey, it's harder to do both on your own.
Kobe Bryant had his chances to push the Lakers to a 3-0 Finals lead.