Thursday, June 15, 2000

Kobe seizes the moment


Lakers up 3-1 on Pacers

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        INDIANAPOLIS — Kobe Bryant was not himself. He didn't play the sort of defense that leaves a shooter feeling suffocated. He couldn't make some of the moves that leave your jaw in your lap.

        He was not playing at 100 percent. Not even close. His sprained left ankle left him a little wobbly, and his layoff left him a mite rusty when the Los Angeles Lakers took the floor Wednesday night in the NBA Finals.

        But Kobe Bryant does not have to be at full strength to be breathtaking. He does not need his A Game to spell awe. With his ankle throbbing and his team in the tenuous position of playing without Shaquille O'Neal in overtime, Bryant seized the moment and willed the Lakers to a 120-118 victory over the Indiana Pacers.

        “Kobe got into that zone,” said Lakers guard Glen Rice. “And anytime you get somebody in a zone like that, the best thing you can do is ride it out with him.”

        The victory gave LA a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, and restored the momentum that was lost when Bryant first injured his ankle. O'Neal fouled out of the game with 2:33 left in the overtime period, with the Lakers clinging to a 3-point lead, but Bryant refused to let this game slip away.

        Trying to exploit O'Neal's absence, Indiana center Rik Smits twice beat substitute John Salley with short hook shots to bring the Pacers to within a point. Both times, Bryant responded with long jump shots on the Lakers' next trip down the floor. He scored eight of his 28 points in the overtime period, including the tip-in that brought LA its last, decisive basket with 5.9 seconds to play.

        “When you're in that situation, you don't feel pressure,” Bryant said . “You just become consumed by the game.”

        “I fouled out and Kobe Bryant took over,” O'Neal said. “He said, "Don't worry about it, I've got it.' That's what a 1-2 punch can do for you.”

        If Bryant's part of the punch was not quite whole, he was terrific when it mattered most, rationing his energy for peak performance. He played tactical position defense for the most part instead of aggressive man-to-man, but he was consistently able to get elevation on his jump shot.

        “You had to wait for key moments to attack,” Bryant said. “This game wasn't going to be won in the first quarter.”

        O'Neal is the league's Most Valuable Player, a dominant force the Pacers are hard-pressed to handle. Yet O'Neal, by himself, is not enough. Indiana won Game Three handily while Bryant sat on the bench, and the Pacers had numerous opportunities to square the series Wednesday night.

        Now, the series takes on the appearance of inevitability. The Lakers need to win only one game out of three, and the last two of them would be in Los Angeles. Presumably, Bryant's ankle will be stronger Friday night for Game Five.

        “I thought he was tentative to start the game,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He winced a couple of times early, but he found control at a level he could play at. He just grew confident as the game went on. . .Kobe smelled it at the end of the game.”

        Jackson smelled it, too. He sought to spread the offense, to clear the floor for Bryant, to allow him the kind of one-on-one latitude he used to grant Michael Jordan.

        “This is the game I've been dreaming about,” Bryant said. “I dream about it every day.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com

NBA Finals coverage from Associated Press