- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

LOS ANGELES On Saturday, one day after the Los Angeles Lakers fell behind the Sacramento Kings 2-1 in the Western Conference finals, Kobe Bryant, still suffering from food poisoning, realized that teammate Derek Fisher was not getting it done defensively against Kings point guard Mike Bibby.
So Bryant, a second-team All-Defensive selection, sidled up to coach Phil Jackson during practice and asked him if he could defend Bibby, the triggerman who makes Sacramento's offense go. Jackson thought about it but decided not to make the switch. That is, until Bibby's 18 first-half points in Game 4 on Sunday had the Lakers looking at a 65-51 halftime deficit and 24 minutes away from falling behind the Kings 3-1 in the series.
So during halftime Jackson decided to go primarily with Bryant on Bibby and the move proved masterful. The Lakers won the game 100-99 on Robert Horry's 3-pointer with time expiring, but perhaps lost in the euphoria that engulfed Staples Center was the near shutout Bryant pitched on Bibby in the second half. With Bryant swarming him every time he touched the ball, Bibby scored just three points in the second half and was unable to get the Kings offense geared up again.
Now, with the series tied at 2-2 and crucial Game 5 tonight in Sacramento, Jackson has not said he will match Bryant against Bibby exclusively. It is clear, however, that Jackson, who loves to challenge his superstar, will assign him to Bibby.
On Sunday, Bryant welcomed the challenge.
"Defensively is where I really wanted to provide the spark," Bryant said. "We were a little lethargic defensively. I felt like that's where we needed our energy boost."
That Bryant had any energy was amazing. Still bothered by food poisoning that has zapped his strength and has him "about 5 pounds" lighter than his normal playing weight.
Still, despite the added burden of being called on to slow the player who has dominated both John Stockton and Steve Nash in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Bryant did just that. He also scored 25 points in 42 minutes.
What made Bryant's job even more complicated was that he picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter.
"Kobe loves to gamble," Jackson said. "He's very active defensively and he's got to be careful out there."
Jackson said one gamble that he won't take is putting the still-recovering Bryant on Bibby for the entire game.
"We know that he can play for some minutes," Jackson said of Bibby, "but I don't want to play him 40 minutes or 48 minutes or 35 minutes, to be honest with you. I thought he could guard him for a couple of quarters.
Bryant and Bibby have known each other since they were kids and their fathers Joe Bryant and Henry Bibby were teammates on playoff teams in Philadelphia. And as high school stars they battled each other on the blue-chip circuit.
"We go back a long way; we've got a lot of respect for each other's game," Bibby said. "Kobe has always loved defense. He got a little help tonight, though."
Bibby was no doubt alluding to what he felt was the more physical game Bryant plays as opposed to Fisher. This is new in that the Lakers Shaquille O'Neal in particular have complained that the Kings were getting away with roughhouse play earlier in the series.
"There's no way that should have been allowed," chimed in Bobby Jackson, his locker not far from Bibby's. "I think they let a lot of things slip by in that second half. But we've got to find a way to counter that."
Bryant, for his part, did not want to get into any of that. Rather, he chose to discuss the importance of throwing a wrench in the Kings' explosive offense, and that, as far as he is concerned, begins with slowing Bibby.
"He dictates the tempo out there for the Kings," Bryant said. "It's important to make him feel uncomfortable. You have to get out there and harass him a little bit and not let him get to the point where he can direct the offense like he's done for the entire playoffs."
Bryant knows he won't be able to inhibit Bibby wherever he goes on the court. He's not even sure just how much he will be called on to defend him. But what he does know is that he won't be ordering too much room service in Sacramento for the next few days.
"I've got some enchiladas packed already," Bryant said.

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