- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. | When Kobe Bryant looked less than sharp in the second half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson - reflecting after his team’s overtime victory - said part of the problem was his star was trying to do too much in certain stretches.

When trapped, he tried to break the double-teams rather than pass the ball. When pinned at an unfavorable angle, he took low-percentage shots - and missed - while teammates stood unguarded. Other times, he got a rebound, darted upcourt outnumbered and forced a play rather than waiting for his teammates.

Jackson wasn’t overly concerned but said he had spoken with Bryant and expected him to make the necessary adjustments while maintaining his leadership role. But the second half of Tuesday’s Game 3 loss to Orlando brought more miscues from Bryant.

Early on, he was electrifying, scoring 17 points in the first quarter. But midway through the second quarter, he lost his rhythm and fell into a 1-for-9 slump from the field. He got back on track briefly late in the third but then struggled down the stretch, scoring just five fourth-quarter points and missing four of his last five shots.

Indeed, there were times in the second half where Bryant again stopped looking for his teammates, double-teamed or not, and committed costly gaffes.

One of them came with 28 seconds left in the game and the Lakers trailing 104-102, when Bryant turned the ball over while trying to cross over Orlando’s Mickael Pietrus. Bryant then had to foul the Magic guard, who made both foul shots.

But determining which plays were “trying to do too much” and which were just the result of an off-night is no easy thing. Considering his flow early in the game and his body of work, it would appear Jackson would want the ball in no other player’s hands with the game on the line. But based on the funk he slipped into for the better part of three quarters, should the coach have looked elsewhere?

It’s a delicate balance Bryant is asked to find.

In Game 1, when Bryant scored 18 third-quarter points, Jackson said the Lakers “went that way a little too much, but [Bryant] kept saying, I’m OK.”

Of the late funk in Game 2, Jackson said: “I didn’t think Kobe had a good game at all as far as his standards go. They double-teamed him, they trapped him, they came on all his drives, and [he] didn’t adjust to it immediately. … They forced the turnovers because we can’t get that ball moved ahead quickly enough when they trapped him or double-teamed him or went to strip him.”

But Jackson’s opinion of Bryant’s Game 3 act - even given the uncommon late-game letdown - was more accepting.

“I think he read the defense all right,” Jackson said. “They’re trying to [force him into mistakes], but I think he’s reading the defense, and he knows what’s coming ahead of him; he’s not going into it blind or a situation where he’s just being strong-minded.”

Jackson then added, “I think that it’s important that he stays flexible in those situations and sees the options.”

Bryant said he doesn’t allow himself to be troubled by popular opinion, which can change game to game.

“You know what, I really don’t pay attention to it,” Bryant said. “I mean, my responsibility on this team, I have to do a little bit more. I’ve got to score and facilitate. So I have a lot more responsibilities, so I can’t just go off. I’ve got to get my guys involved sometimes. Sometimes you’re sacrificing your rhythm to try to rebuild it. Last night, I couldn’t regenerate it.”

But when do you shoot your way out of a funk, and when do you pass your way out of a funk? It all depends, Bryant says.

“If everybody’s not in rhythm, if I feel like my guys are struggling that night, then I’ll shoot through it,” Bryant said. “Guys get things going, then I’ll keep going to them and try to find my way through it that way.”

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