- The Washington Times - Monday, May 3, 2004

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — It looked as if Kobe Bryant was headed for one of those big finishes that usually mean success for the Los Angeles Lakers, especially against the San Antonio Spurs.

After 3-for-9 shooting in the first half of Sunday’s second-round playoff opener at San Antonio, Bryant scored 12 points in the third, leading the Lakers from an eight-point halftime deficit to a 65-62 lead.

“Kobe got hot, so we just tried to hang in there and get the quarter over,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said.

But getting through the quarter didn’t seem to be the answer — Bryant made a jumper and a driving layup in the first minute of the fourth against Spurs rookie Devin Brown.

Then, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich sent ace defender Bruce Bowen back in and got the desired results. Bryant tried only four more shots, but none went in as San Antonio rallied for an 88-78 victory.

“Pretty much in the fourth quarter, we played the first two minutes or so, then we just didn’t get it done,” Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said yesterday. “They controlled the critical minutes of that game.”

Part of Bryant’s ineffectiveness down the stretch also came from Jackson’s strategy of pounding the ball inside to center Shaquille O’Neal. But that plan didn’t work because the Lakers committed 10 turnovers and scored only 13 points in the period.

Bryant, who scored 31 points, openly questioned the strategy.

“We tried to force it inside too much,” he said. “They did a good job of corralling him. We didn’t honor their defense.”

O’Neal called Game 1 a “feel-out” game that would set the tone for the best-of-7 series.

“It’s going to be physical, lots of clawing and scratching,” he said. “It is going to be a defensive series. The team that concentrates the most is going to win.”

Game 2 is tomorrow night in San Antonio.

The Spurs had to be happy with Jackson’s late-game strategy, given how routinely Bryant has hurt them in playoffs past.

When the Lakers eliminated San Antonio in 2002, Bryant scored at least 10 fourth-quarter points in each of the final three games, and his team won all of them.

Last season, the Spurs won the second-round series but not before Bryant gave them a few scares. He averaged 32.3 points in six games, and in the pivotal Game 5 in San Antonio led the Lakers back from a 25-point second-half deficit that fell just short.

“Kobe is going to score — no one is really going to stop him,” Parker said. “But Bruce did a good job on him.”

Los Angeles didn’t alter an offense that wasn’t working, but San Antonio did.

The Lakers clamped down on Tim Duncan, who had 30 points and 11 rebounds, with double teams in the third. So Parker carried the offensive burden. He scored 13 points in the period, including two jumpers in the last 31 seconds to cut the Lakers’ lead to three.

“He’s a real competitive kid,” Popovich said. “The last couple of months, he’s really taken over the program. He’s pretty much in charge out there right now.”

Parker didn’t score in the fourth but had three assists. And Duncan traded his layups and short hooks for midrange jumpers, scoring 10 points in the fourth as San Antonio built its lead to as many as 13.

“I didn’t think we played that good except for the fourth quarter,” said Parker, who finished with 20 points and nine assists. “It’s good to win a game and know that you have a lot of room for improvement.”

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