Celtics Bracing for Bryant's Big Game
Yes, it's now Kobe Time.
And no one knows it better than the Boston Celtics, who are bracing Sunday for Kobe Bryant to try and stamp his signature on this series, expecting to give the Los Angeles Lakers all the momentum they need to claim back-to-back NBA titles.
"You brace for a big game from Kobe Bryant every time you play against him,'' Celtics guard Tony Allen said Saturday before practice. "But we all have to have our antennas up even more now because he's due for a real breakout game.''
To no one's surprise, Bryant has been the best player in the Finals, averaging 28.3 points, but not by the expected margin. He hasn't shot very well (40.9 percent). He hasn't been very consistent. There have been no heroics. He failed to prevent the Game 2 letdown in Los Angeles. He committed seven turnovers that led to the Game 4 loss on Thursday.
And he bristled when Lakers coach Phil Jackson told everyone that Bryant was tired.
"I'm miserable,'' Bryant said Saturday after the Lakers had a light workout. "And I'm well rested.''
Bryant was curiously reserved the past two days, simmering in the moment, knowing why the comparisons to Michael Jordan that were so loud two weeks before have quieted, and the questions about being the greatest Laker in history have slowed.
He has listened to everyone proclaim greatness for the Celtics defense and their defensive coordinator for the way he has prevented Bryant from dominating this series. And he's heard Allen being recognized for his ability to make Bryant uncomfortable.
"There's no doubt that the more you talk about it, the more the target is on (Allen and the Celtics),'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "There's nobody that's stopping Kobe Bryant. If there is, I haven't met him, or it, because I don't think it would be a person. He's going to have big games. And we're going to have to win one of those games where (the superstar) goes off on a big night. We still have to find a way to win that game.''
The Celtics didn't get to the Finals without being able to blanket the opposing stars. They beat Dwyane Wade and Miami in the first round. They slowed LeBron James and Cleveland in the second round. They subdued Dwight Howard in the Eastern Conference finals.
And they have limited Bryant in the first four games of this series, which explains the 2-2 split.
They have done it with a variety of styles, overplaying him at times and moving him away from his strengths. They have used both Ray Allen and Tony Allen, along with some Paul Pierce. They have double teamed him, and even sent a third defender at him in the fourth quarter. They also have made him work defensively, knowing he has to guard active Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo because Derek Fisher can't.
"They don't want me to beat them, so they put three guys there. It's nothing we haven't seen before. It's just that when you win those games, like Game 3, nobody talks about it because we take advantage of it,'' Bryant said. "And if you lose the game, everybody talks about that.''
Bryant has been hindered by a lack of support, getting consistent help only from power forward Pau Gasol. Center Andrew Bynum is playing at half speed because of the troublesome right knee. Forward Ron Artest has shown few offensive skills in this series. Lamar Odom has played well in only one of the four games. And Fisher, the hero of Game 3, has not produced offensively in three of the four games.
It all points to a potential signature game for Bryant, who has scored 40 points or more in 11 playoff games during his career. The Lakers won 10 of those, including his last one against the Phoenix Suns to open the Western Conference finals.
"We have to be able to play through his greatness,'' Rivers said. "We've had the luxury of saying that now every series. You don't prepare any differently. We have our fourth quarter, let's say, way of guarding him if it's late. Other than that, we just have play our team defense.''
Bryant has scored 30 or more in the playoffs 77 times, second only behind Jordan. But his 30 has become everyone else's 20. It's expected, and it doesn't win games like 40 does, especially with so many of his teammates struggling now, and so much on the line.
Bryant is going for his fifth NBA title, and he's not about to let this one slip away without him leaving his mark.
"The Finals is -- and should be -- the ultimate test,'' Bryant said. "I'm confident.''