- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- For the first time in the playoffs, the Lakers seem vulnerable.
It's not really about Kobe Bryant's back injury. He hurt it on his second shot of the game on Sunday, but that didn't stop him from hoisting another 31. And even though he hasn't practiced for the past two days and is technically listed as "day-to-day," you can count on his name being called by public address announcer Lawrence Tanter before Game 5 Wednesday night at Staples Center. There's no way Bryant is going to miss a playoff game one week after winning his first Most Valuable Player trophy. Phil Jackson said he isn't worrying about Bryant, so neither should anyone else.
It's how the Lakers lost Game 4, how Kobe went down guns a-blazin', that brings up older, deeper concerns. A question that hasn't been asked in Lakerland this season -- is Kobe shooting too much for the team's good? -- resurfaced again. This was an issue we thought had been addressed already, placed in storage, finished. And now it's back. Kind of like "Sex and the City."
For 2007-08, Bryant made a point of incorporating his teammates, the Lakers flourished, and as a result Kobe has his first MVP trophy. Perhaps something about the Utah Jazz brought it out of Bryant, as if he felt the need to follow the old adage that contrasting styles make for great fights.
The Jazz represent the epitome of teamwork. They can't get by with just one great individual performer. They've never had that type of transcendent player. Karl Malone scored more points than any NBA player not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Malone relied on John Stockton to get him the ball, and the Jazz usually turned to Stockton when games got tight. With this version, Deron Williams can play well but he needs someone else -- be it Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur or Andrei Kirilenko -- to ride along with him.
The Jazz and the Detroit Pistons -- another ultimate "team" team -- are the only foes Bryant has faced in the playoffs that he hasn't defeated at least once. Will he try to remedy that all on his own, or will he yield and try to beat the Jazz at their own game? Will he continue the ironic trend of this season that's seen him play more like LeBron James, while James has adopted some of Kobe's characteristics?
James showed in Game 4 against the Celtics how to dominate without playing near his best. On another night when he struggled to hit the jumper, James set up his teammates enough to collect 13 assists. He gave up the ball early in transition so the Celtics couldn't wrap him up to stop potential fast breaks. If Bryant's back doesn't let him drive to the basket as easily and makes shooting jumpers difficult, will he be willing to act as a facilitator, to be a decoy, the equivalent of using his MVP trophy as a paperweight?
This isn't something that should be worked out in the playoffs. The thing is, in the past, it hardly ever was. Even as Shaq and Kobe tugged on their sides of the rope in the battle for control of the team, in the postseason, Bryant almost always relented and passed the ball (with the notable exception of the 2004 NBA Finals against the Pistons).
A major difference now is there's no one willing to call out Bryant if he goes astray. Not even coach Phil Jackson, who never was one to hold his tongue. Since he returned to the Lakers, it's almost as if Jackson has a clause in his contract forbidding him from criticizing Bryant. Sunday, he blamed Bryant's teammates for standing around and watching him shoot. He also was "firm" (his word) with his reserves, who couldn't hang with the Jazz when Bryant was on the bench to start the fourth quarter of Game 4.
The Lakers are vulnerable because they're in the position of hoping. Hoping that Kobe's Game 4 chuck-fest was just a blip on the radar. Hoping that the friendly, star-studded environment of Staples Center means Derek Fisher won't have the quick fouls called on him that limited him to only 30 minutes a game in Utah. The Lakers had paced Fisher, especially down the stretch, so he'd be fresh and ready to play heavy minutes in the playoffs. It was undone by the foul trouble in Salt Lake City. Making it worse was the play of backup Jordan Farmar, who was effective during the regular season but as useless as a penny in the two road games this series.
They also have to hope that the Jazz are just as vulnerable on the road as they were in the first two games of the series. Oddly, Williams said the Jazz have greater defensive intensity at home. Normally home court makes a difference on offense, but perhaps the biggest difference for Utah in Games 3 and 4 was the way the Jazz jammed the Lakers and kept them from flowing freely in the triangle. The Lakers stopped moving and they started settling for jump shots. They went from 47 assists in the first two games to 34 in the second pair.
The Lakers are back at home, but this is the first time they aren't guaranteed to play there again after this one's finished.
Until now the Lakers have always ventured out onto the tightrope with a safety net below. Now it's gone. They're 48 bad minutes away from facing an elimination game in Utah. You can apply ice or electrical pulses to a bad back. There's no standard remedy for nerves. And for the first time, the Lakers have reason to be nervous.
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.
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