- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2008

BOSTON | Although he turned in another poor shooting performance against the Boston Celtics in Thursday’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant insists the problem isn’t his opponents.

Bryant scored 24 points on 9-for-26 shooting in the Lakers’ 98-88 loss. And counting his two regular-season performances against Boston, Bryant is shooting 34 percent.

The Celtics used a variety of strategies against Bryant. Ray Allen spent most of the night guarding him one-on-one, but Boston occasionally threw a double-team at the league MVP. The Celtics also crowded the lane to force Bryant to the perimeter. But Bryant doesn’t consider his poor shooting a reflection of Boston’s defense.

“I’ve just got to put the ball in the [darn] hole,” said Bryant, who entered the finals averaging 31.9 points on 50.9 percent shooting. “That sucker did want to stay down last game.”

Bryant later added: “The Celtics were just making me a perimeter player in terms of being able to shoot the ball. Two games we played in the regular season, I shot the ball atrociously. In Game 1, I shot the ball bad, too. Hopefully it just means I’m due.”

Lakers coach Phil Jackson gave Boston’s defense a little more credit, however.

“It certainly has something to do with it. The defense is there,” Jackson said. “He didn’t get to the basket. He didn’t get to the foul line. Foul shots are really important for scoring, and again they eliminated a lot of his ability to get to the foul line.

“But as we all saw,” Jackson added, “there was a lot of shots there that just didn’t go down for him and that were in and out.”

Jackson said Bryant has to get a better feel for the baskets, and he expects his numbers should improve in Game 2.

Jackson’s greater concern was his team’s poor second-half defense, which led to Boston scoring 31 points in the third quarter and outrebounding Los Angeles 46-33.

Lakers center Pau Gasol, who didn’t have a rebound in the first half, disputed the theory that there is a disparity in the teams’ physicality levels.

“I don’t think they’re more physical than Utah,” Gasol said. “I don’t think they’re more physical than San Antonio. The first game on the road, it’s been a little hard for us. I remember Utah. I remember San Antonio. … We struggled a little bit to get a feel of how it was going to be in Game 1, but we bounced back really well on both of our second games on the road.”

Pierce update

There is no structural damage in Paul Pierce’s right knee, according to the Celtics. Pierce was carried off the court in the third quarter of Game 1 after he strained his meniscus, but he returned three minutes later to spark his team to a rally.

Both coach Doc Rivers and Pierce said they expect the forward to play Sunday but agreed that he would have had to watch from the bench if Game 2 were Friday.

Pierce, who experienced some pain, stiffness and swelling in the knee Friday morning, said team doctors tested his movements and felt around his knee, but he didn’t have an MRI.

“Regardless of the MRI at this point, I mean, what is it really going to tell us?” Pierce said. “The extent of the injury, but at this point with two weeks left, six games to go, we can figure this out after the season.”

Lakers coach Phil Jackson questioned the severity of Pierce’s injury after seeing the six-time All-Star play so well in his return.

“I don’t know if the angels visited him in that timeout period that he had or not, but he didn’t even limp when he came back out on the floor,” Jackson said with a laugh. “I don’t know what was going on there. Was Oral Roberts back there in the locker room?”

Pierce insisted he didn’t fake the injury but said it wasn’t as serious as he first thought.

“I’ve never had any knee problems in my career, so it was really scary once I felt a sharp pain in it,” Pierce said. “It was something I’ve never felt before.”

Rivers shrugged off Jackson’s skepticism: “Phil was skeptical? Oh, I don’t care. Aren’t we skeptics anyway now about everything? So what the heck. Let it begin. Let it begin. Lee Harvey Oswald did it.”

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