- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- The assumption is that Kobe Bryant will be Kobe Bryant. That means he will land back here just in time for tip-off Tuesday night, swoop for at least 30 points and make all of us marvel at how he makes going from court to court -- via round-trip, gameday flights -- look so stressless.
The truth is that the Lakers have no idea if that's how it's really going to go. Bryant's mental readiness for Game 4 is the factor they worry least about, but who can guarantee that the plane and the weather and the ground-bound traffic to the arena will cooperate? Karl Malone concedes that L.A. is obligated to approach the evening on the assumption that for once "maybe he doesn't make it."
San Antonio, meanwhile, finds itself -- surprise -- in a state 180 degrees from where the Lakers sit. Braggadocio isn't the Spurs' thing, but, if pressed, they are prepared to guarantee that Tim Duncan will be Tim Duncan no matter where Bryant is at 10:30 ET.
"You don't need to worry about Tim Duncan," Kevin Willis said in a scolding tone.
Malone doesn't disagree, much as he wishes he could.
"That's what you've got to like about that team," L.A.'s Mailman offered. "They don't get too excited about things."
As Malone suggests, San Antonio doesn't seem too panicky in the wake of one of the worst games Duncan has ever played. Coming off a scoreless fourth quarter in Game 2 -- albeit a quarter when at least his passes arrived to the intended targets -- Duncan missed his first seven shots in Game 3 and wound up with just 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting. Only twice in his career, once against the Lakers (nine) in 2001 and once against Portland in 1999 (five), has Duncan scored fewer points in a playoff game.
So the secondary focus Tuesday, though admittedly a distant second to the scrutiny Bryant will be facing, is how Duncan responds to his struggles.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich reminded his media audience on the off-day that TD "doesn't come back after a bad game and play mad," but Duncan is indeed furious with himself. He still can't believe that the Lakers' aggressive double-teaming and grabby hands in the post could be so effective.
The blame, mind you, shouldn't be directed exclusively inward. The Lakers didn't drastically change their defensive strategy on Duncan; L.A. simply upped its aggressiveness and really got into him. It was successful because L.A. did make noticeable adjustments to its defensive game plan against Tony Parker, and those tactical switches worked. The Lakers crowded the lane, shooed Parker wide on pick-and-rolls and collapsed hard on the little Frenchman hard whenever he did get inside. That stifled Parker's penetration and affected the quality of shots Duncan received, as did the inability of every other Spur to make the wide-open looks L.A. happily conceded.
Look for Duncan to counter with patience. He won't rush against the double-teams like he did Sunday.
While just about anyone would bet that he'll have a more Duncan-esque game, he has to have support from the perimeter. The Spurs' main weakness, besides free-throw shooting, is their lack of perimeter consistency. No one on the current roster shoots the long ball like Steve Kerr, or even Stephen Jackson. The Lakers suddenly believe they can slow Duncan and Parker by committing four or five defenders to stopping those two, and they are prepared to concede as many open threes as San Antonio wants to stop the top two Spurs. Hedo Turkoglu and Bruce Bowen, to name two others, have to punish L.A. like they do more often at home.
"He's human, too," Manu Ginobili said, when asked to explain Duncan's shakiness Sunday. "It wasn't a good game and we didn't help him."
Parker is another Spur who essentially promised that Game 4 would be different, echoing the belief that San Antonio was probably due for a spanking after going 17 games and 46 days without defeat. "Finally we had a bad game," he said. "It's been a long time."
It's been an even longer time since anyone can remember Duncan having two nightmares in a row. Plus he'll be on the team bus, which means you can count on the routed Spurs to be a little less nervous than the rallying Lakers as the teams count down the hours to the opening tip at Staples Center.
3hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann