Jackson: Kobe looked tired down the stretch
PHOENIX -- Pass-first facilitator? Or free-scoring gunner?
Those were supposed to be the only two choices, right?
Nobody said anything about us winding up with a Weary Kobe.
Sadly, though, that's who was dragging around US Airways Center in the fourth quarter Sunday. Kobe Bryant served up what can only be described as some dazzling gunning in the first half, but he simply didn't have the legs -- or the teammates -- to be either of those first two Kobes at the finish.
Hounded by his old pal Raja Bell, as well as the occasional harassment of Shawn Marion and various help defenders, Bryant wore down to the point that he sullied a 39-point performance by missing 11 of his final 12 shots, lowlighted by a 1-for-10 showing in the game's final quarter.
Yet if you're wondering why he didn't just pass off more to ease the burden he's carrying, it's also worth remembering who was flanking Bryant during some critical junctures. Just to give you an example from the stretch in the fourth quarter in which Phoenix took the lead for good, this was the foursome on the floor with Kobe: Andrew Bynum, Brian Cook, Sasha Vujacic and Maurice Evans.
The only realistic way to stun the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of this first-round rematch, for a shaken team that nearly slid all the way out of the playoffs, would have meant No. 24 beating fatigue, too. When Bryant couldn't, that left his Lakers vulnerable to an unusually subpar Suns team rallying for a 95-87 victory.
"Kobe ran out of gas in the fourth quarter," Lakers coach Phil Jackson confirmed in his postgame address.
Asked again moments later if that was indeed his conclusion, Jackson repeated: "Sure looked like it, didn't it?"
Kobe, not surprisingly, disputed the theory, insisting that it was actually poor second-half execution and increasing swarms of double- and triple-teams -- not fatigue -- that caused his looks and even his catches to gradually become "a lot harder."
The bigger problem, of course, is that it's already difficult to imagine Phoenix playing much worse or seeing where Jackson and Bryant look for alternatives. One game into Lakers-Suns II, it's fairly clear that a few of Kobe's supporting casters -- Luke Walton (bad ankle), Smush Parker (Phil's doghouse) and Kwame Brown (with his own litany of well-chronicled limitations) -- are unlikely to have the sort of impact they had last year in the teams' seven-game playoff epic or early this season when the Lakers bolted to a 23-11 start.
Jackson was sufficiently pessimistic beforehand to admit this out loud: "Last year, I felt we could win the series. This year, I'm not sure."
He was also asked whether a Game 1 upset, coupled with the knowledge that they nearly toppled Phoenix last time, could restore some of the self-belief that was lost when the Lakers went 9-15 in March and April. Jackson shot that one down, too.
Now you know why.
L.A.'s game plan did call for doses of both kinds of Kobe. Jackson liked the idea of an early Kobe scoring binge to give the visitors a foothold, then perhaps more passing, and singled out only one of Kobe's choices for criticism: Bryant missed a 3-pointer early in the shot clock with 29.8 seconds left in the third, which became a bigger miss when Leandro Barbosa ended the quarter with a buzzer-beating, momentum-turning triple from 31 feet out.
In the fourth? The other Lakers were fading along with Bryant, so it's not as if a spread-the-wealth approach would have changed much. L.A. managed just 10 points as a team in the final period, wasting some of its best D all season.
Lamar Odom had some encouraging moments in amassing 17 points and 16 boards, but he didn't torment the Suns in the low post or get the ball to the rim with the sort of ease seen last April. Jordan Farmar, furthermore, wasn't bad as the team's new starting point guard, but it can't be a good thing that it's now a mini-crisis for L.A. when a guy fresh off three D-League cameos picks up his fourth foul in the third quarter.
Kobe already has proved to the skeptics that he can shift comfortably from gunner to passer if his teammates and the game warrant such a shift. That's precisely what happened in Lakers-Suns I, with Bryant frequently operating in pass-first mode in that series after averaging 40 points a game in the final month of the '05-06 season.
But can he do that with this group?
Does he dare?
Those are questions for Tuesday night's Game 2, but the adjustment hinted at by Jackson depends on the Lakers getting their early offense elsewhere.
Reflecting on Bryant's 28-point show in the first half, with 23 of those points hung on Bell and the vast majority coming on jumpers with a high degree of difficulty, Jackson said: "We'd just as soon like to [save] that for the endgame situation."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.