A Coming-of-Age Party for Bryant
This comeback, this Game 7 thriller won’t go down as just a “building stone for our team,” as Laker Coach Phil Jackson called it.
It’s the day the cement dried on one of the cornerstones of the franchise, and this two-part foundation locked into place.
Three times now when it was needed the most, when a series and a season hung in the balance, Kobe Bryant has delivered--and never in more consistent and balanced fashion than he did Sunday.
He has earned his spot alongside Shaquille O’Neal, moving up from the No. 2 guy to No. 1A, looking ready to play the part of the second great player essential to championship teams.
“I think so,” O’Neal said. “Kobe’s a great player.”
And now he has his first trip to the NBA finals. Win or lose, Bryant will have gone through the experience and will be even better for it. And if the Lakers defeat the Indiana Pacers this could be dynasty material.
All Bryant did Sunday--when the season was reduced to win-or-do-some-serious-explaining--was lead the Lakers in scoring, rebounds, assists and blocked shots in their 89-84 comeback against the Trail Blazers.
All he did, after Portland had coughed up the last of its 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, was bring the Lakers home.
Two free throws. A jump shot with Scottie Pippen close enough to whisper in his ear. And then . . . The Lob.
As the bar-stool discussions and Internet messages proliferate on the play that sent the Lakers to the NBA finals, as the lore has O’Neal reaching to the top of the square, then to the top of the backboard, then to Suite Level A to grab the alley-oop pass and jam it home, just remember who threw the ball.
His winning shot in Game 2 of the Phoenix series showed his moxie.
His 14-point outburst in the first quarter at Portland in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, his pass to Ron Harper for the go-ahead shot and game-saving block on Arvydas Sabonis demonstrated his ability to save the Lakers when O’Neal can’t do it and make smart decisions.
Game 7 solidified it. It was the first time in these playoffs that Bryant did it all, and it was enough to earn the Lakers a victory. Twenty-five points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, four blocked shots. Great defense. Overall play so convincing that no one even thought to ask him how his sprained right foot felt.
And then a play that came out of the blue--or better yet, out of the gold T-shirts worn by 90% of the fans in the building.
The Lakers led by four after Bryant’s free throws and jumper, and had the ball with less than 50 seconds remaining.
As well as he had played, Bryant already had some of those ill-advised forays into the lane again and looked primed for another.
But he did what Jackson and Tex Winter have asked him to do all season, and what O’Neal had implored him to do throughout Game 7.
After Bryant got the step on Pippen and attracted the attention Rasheed Wallace and Brian Grant, he made the right choice.
“When he went to the hole, we caught eye contact and he just threw it up,” O’Neal said. “I just went up . . . that was an opportunity for me to get an easy bucket.”
Bryant wanted to make sure the ball got over Grant, but when he first released the pass, “I thought I threw the ball too high,” Bryant said. “Shaq went up and got it, I was like, ‘Damn!’ ”
The Trail Blazers probably came up with a few other words after they called time out, to ponder what to do about a sudden six-point deficit with 41.3 seconds remaining.
Earlier, Bryant made a play on defense that started the comeback rolling. He rushed over to help on Bonzi Wells, spiked Wells’ shot to the ground so hard it took a high bounce, then jumped to grab the ball. The Lakers got a three-point basket from Shaw and were within 10 with 9:38 remaining.
“It was a surge for us,” Bryant said. “Kind of a statement to Portland that we’re not going to give up, that we’re here to fight, that we’re not going to give up no matter what the score is. I think that block was a statement to them that we’re not going to give up.”
Bryant had been delivering that message throughout the game, winning his defensive position battles against Pippen, Wells and Steve Smith. After the Trail Blazers attacked him throughout Games 5 and 6, “I just took it as a personal challenge,” he said.
“I felt like all series long they’ve kind of been going at me and trying to expose me and trying to get me in foul trouble. It got to a point where it really started to get under my skin. I just took it as a personal challenge that whoever they’re posting up, I’m not going to have it. I’m not going to have it.”
That was about the only time Bryant’s face turned serious. Otherwise he couldn’t help but smile, practically giddy at the thought of his first NBA finals.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed about all of my 21 years,” he said, laughing along with the rest of us at how silly that sounded.
He’s growing up in a basketball sense, at the same time most of his peers are finishing college and making the move into adulthood.
“I tease them, like, ‘You’re a man now,’ “Bryant said. “ ‘You’re an official man. You’ve got your diploma and you’ve got to go out into the real world.’ ”
Bryant’s been in the real world since coming directly from Lower Merion High to the NBA.
He’s about to enter the realm of marriage, a fairly large step toward official man-dom itself.
“It’s beautiful,” Bryant said. “It’s beautiful.”
Ah, to be young and in love.
Better yet, to be young, in love and in the NBA finals.
J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org