Bryant great late, but Lakers never had a chance

The Canadian Press

5/26/2009 1:09:03 AM

DENVER -- He can't do everything.

But if the Lakers are going to advance to the NBA finals, Kobe Bryant might just have to.

Over four desperate minutes late in Monday night's 120-101 loss to Denver, Bryant took the first shot on seven straight Los Angeles possessions, made it to the line six times and scored 13 points in a futile attempt to catch up.

The rest of the Lakers' production: four free throws from Pau Gasol.

So, Los Angeles left Denver having regained home-court advantage, but appearing never more dependent on its admittedly exhausted star with the Western Conference finals now tied 2-2.

"Yes, those are actions we have to go to and they're drastic actions," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of the Kobe-or-nothing strategy at the end.

A good strategy? That's up for debate. Gasol went 8-for-11 for 21 points. He's shooting 62 per cent for the series. But the only way he could get his hands on the ball late in this game was to grab an offensive rebound.

"You tell me," he said. "I don't think there's many people who would say there's something right about it. I wish we would take more advantage of our inside game, because it's pretty effective. It's unfortunate we don't recognize it enough."

Gasol may be effective but he's not a game-changer.

The Lakers only have one of those.

Bryant was attached to an IV in the locker room after Game 3, when he hit a three-pointer and five free throws late to help the Lakers take a late lead and keep it in a 103-97 win.

He finished with 34 points on Monday and is still averaging 36 for the series. But there was no late run in this game, the first of the series to be decided before the last few possessions.

Bryant conceded he was exhausted after almost single-handedly pulling one out for the Lakers in Game 3 -- sort of the same way he did it in Game 1. Jackson said he didn't have any problem with his superstar admitting a weakness.

"It's foolish to deny it. He could barely stand up," Jackson said in the pre-game.

The truth was evident on the court, too. His team playing catch-up all night, Bryant played all 12 minutes of the third quarter but scored only two points.

He spent the first 5:16 of the fourth quarter on the bench, resting up for one last run, and when he returned, the Lakers were trailing by 10.

"He takes responsibility and he demands the ball," Gasol said. "He is pretty effective with it, for the most part. Absolutely."

Bryant missed on his first shot, though Gasol got the rebound and got fouled.

After that, hardly any other Laker touched the ball.

A forced 20-footer that went in.

Another shot that dropped from 21 with Chris Andersen in his face.

A three-point swish, then a three-point miss that resulted in an offensive rebound and two more free throws by Gasol.

Then, Bryant made six straight free throws.

Yet Los Angeles never trimmed the deficit below 10.

"It's more tiring to have to do that," Bryant said. "But physically, I felt OK today. There were certain stretches where I was a bit winded but, all in all, I felt pretty damn good."

For all the late-game magic Bryant has conjured up over his career, it was hard to ignore the difference between his supporting cast and Denver's on this night.

Carmelo Anthony came in with the stomach flu, then twisted his ankle in the second quarter. He finished with only 15 points on 3-for-16 shooting, but he had help in the form of J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups (24 points apiece), Andersen (14 rebounds) and others.

The Lakers?

"They were kind of a three-man show," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "It was Gasol, Bynum and Kobe."

Andrew Bynum had 14 points -- but nothing in the last nine minutes.

So really, it was just Kobe at the end, and this time, that wasn't good enough.