Even Jackson didn't figure on a passive Kobe

Originally Published: May 25, 2004
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- In Game Ninety-Six, or Game No. 104 if you're counting exhibitions, those wacky Lakers finally submitted somewhat of a blueprint game offensively.

Kobe Bryant
APKobe Bryant scored all 22 of his points in the second half.
All five starters in double figures. Twenty-nine assists on 34 buckets. A timely 100-point output mere hours after a SportsCenter graphic detailed how no Lakers team had ever averaged below 90 points in the playoffs under Phil Jackson before.

Except that blueprint isn't the adjective Jackson used. Not even after watching a promising exhibition of ball-sharing from his Four Cornerstones, until a late procession of free throws.

The first two adjectives used by Jackson to describe the proceedings? Try "strange" and "unusual."

It seems that even the Zenmeister was never expecting a night where his Lakers could seize a nine-point halftime lead over Minnesota in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals with Kobe Bryant taking only two shots. And missing both.

"Another unusual part of the game," Jackson said wryly, which is how he says lots of things.

Yep. It was another peculiar episode in the Lakers' soap-opera season, especially since Bryant still found the time, space and interest to score 22 points in the second half to help L.A. gradually pull away for a 100-89 triumph and a 2-1 series lead. Even though Bryant looked like a rather bored facilitator of the offense for more than two quarters, he still wound up doing enough to generate a fourth-quarter "M-V-P, M-V-P" chant at Staples Center, most notably back-to-back triples that stretched the home lead to 17.

The cynic watching courtside inevitably wonders how long Bryant can stay happy as a mere facilitator. Because of the suspected answer -- Not long -- the consistent buzz in Lakers circles remains that this group will be broken up even if it wins the championship ... if it intends to hang onto Kobe in free agency. Team sources continue to insist the Lakers, to re-sign No. 8, are bracing for him to tell owner Jerry Buss that he wants a new coach, presumably Byron Scott. In that scenario, Gary Payton would figure to be the next of the Four Cornerstones to exit, with Shaquille O'Neal's future also thrown into question because he's so loyal to Jackson and because Shaq's on record as saying that he'll be furious if Phil is forced out.

In the now, though, the only tangible discontent in Lakerland is the crowd's relative silence during those stretches when Bryant is feeding the post or simply swinging the ball.

The locals want to win a fourth championship in five springs, but don't forget this is still Hollywood. They want to be dazzled. Jackson and O'Neal might prefer the game played this way -- Bryant making sure everyone else is flowing before he joins in -- but Kobe is the one beloved by the people. The volume on their reaction depends on what he does.

From inside the locker room, meanwhile, Karl Malone doesn't deny that even Bryant's teammates aren't sure what to think when he's so passive.

"I think a lot of times, we're caught up in the hype ourselves," Malone said. "We're all caught up in it and saying, 'OK, go ahead and shoot it.' Sometimes I think we force a pass to him so he can shoot one to kind of get a rhythm.

"But I've said all along that kid is one of the strongest individuals I've been around. And I've been around for 18 years."

That's Malone's way of saying that Bryant isn't about to worry now about what the cynics think. That Bryant, six wins away from a fourth ring, isn't going to pick today to get upset with suspicions about his Game 3 motives. Not like he did late in the regular season after that famously passive first half in Sacramento, when it was widely theorized that Bryant was intentionally holding back to show the other Lakers how much they need him.

Malone's prediction was pretty much backed up when Bryant plopped down at Tuesday night's postgame podium. He was loose and jokey.

Asked if he held back in the first two quarters because of a foot injury, as Jackson suggested, Bryant dismissed it as a meaningless ankle tweak that "happens to me all the time."

Asked next to provide his own explanation for the 0-for-2 first half, Bryant grinned broadly and served up one of the cracks of the season:

"I'm sabotaging the game, man."

That, of course, was the accusation after the Sacramento game. When the laughter faded, Bryant did offer a more detailed account, saying: "We were playing so well as a team. ... There's really no reason for me to try push through it or force shots. ... The defense dictates how I play. If we come out and we're hitting shots, there's no reason for me to be assertive or for guys to defer to me or look for me."

Not until Thursday night, anyway. That's when Bryant has a morning court appearance in Colorado before Game 4.

Which means, even though these are the wacky Lakers, everyone knows which script to expect.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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