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Tuesday, April 22
 
Kobe turning Wally's world upside down

By Chris Palmer
ESPN the Magazine

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kobe Bryant knew what was coming. There would be swipes at the ball. Elbows to his midsection. But mostly there would be traps by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Lots of them. So he called on one of his best virtues to get him through. Patience. Imagine that, Kobe Bryant with patience. Sure he looked for the holes and driving lanes to the basket, but they weren't there early in Game 1. He'd get the ball and dart in one direction only to slam on the brakes, cradling his dribble high above his shoulder and then reversing field. But he remained patient and didn't force it.

Wally Szczerbiak and Kobe Bryant
Wally Szczerbiak, left, is using all of his energy trying to stop Kobe Bryant, middle.
He spotted Derek Fisher on the wing for a 3-pointer, fed Mark Madsen for a dunk and created a jump hook for Shaquille O'Neal. All within the first four minutes of Game 1. Then things loosened up and he took off. He knocked in an off-balance jumper followed by a three from the top of the key. Twenty-four minutes later, he had 28 points. The Lakers shot out to a 15-point lead and instantly changed the complexion of the series.

What does this all mean? Wally Szczerbiak has his work cut out for him. He's faced with a player who has added absolute patience to his ever-growing arsenal. That quality has transformed Bryant from a wild gunner to a precise assassin. The more Bryant caculates, the less you can sleep. The thought of him shooting himself out of a game is almost a thing of the past. Since Marc Jackson stopping Shaq is out of the question, the spotlight on Wally to at least slow Kobe is blinding.

This has already taken a toll on Szczerbiak's game, and in turn the Timberwolves as a team. When your No. 2 scorer is preoccupied with guarding Kobe Bryant, he can't concentrate on scoring. Szczerbiak took only nine shots in Game 1. Nine shots by your No. 2 guy doesn't put you in a position to win many playoff basketball games. But if Szczerbiak doesn't clamp down on Bryant somehow, it won't matter how many shots anyone for Minnesota takes.

Letting Bryant get 40 in Game 2 is unacceptable. In fact, here's a little prediction -- it's nothing major, but you can bet your Air Jordans it's the truest thing you'll hear this week: If Kobe scores 30 or more points in any playoff game, the Lakers will win. Here's why.

Despite his ability to score in alarming bunches, Bryant usually spreads his scoring out evenly over the whole game whether it's 28 or 58. Rarely will he put together a game of lopsided halves. For 42 minutes, he requires a defender's undivided attention. He won't go more than two minutes without scoring and will crank up 25 to 30 shots to get his numbers. Szczerbiak will have to constantly be on alert. His scoring is going to suffer before the game even starts. It's hard to swallow but Szczerbiak will have to change his priorities.

I'm a guy who loves to score, but I'm out there just trying to do whatever I can to stay agressive. Sometimes that's just the way the ball bounces on this team.
Wally Szczerbiak

"I'm a guy who loves to score," said Szczerbiak, "but I'm out there just trying to do whatever I can to stay agressive. Sometimes that's just the way the ball bounces on this team."

During every second of Wally's 41 minutes in Game 1, Kobe was on the floor. He won't get a moment's rest until the series ends. And if he wants to rest before then, it will have to be on offense. Szczerbiak also has a history of getting frustrated when his offensive production is being tampered with. That's a bad position for a guy who is not great at getting his own shot. Kobe knows it.

"I'll just squeeze him," Bryant said with a smile, "make him take tough shots. He loves to score and sometimes he chases down his shots."

If Wally is caught chasing Kobe Bryant, it will be another long night and a short series.

Chris Palmer is a senior reporter for ESPN the Magazine.

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