Thursday May 22nd, 2008

There was one obvious question to consider at halftime of the Lakers' 89-85 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals:

What was Kobe Bryant doing?

To say Bryant was mortal in the first half against the Spurs would be an insult to mortals everywhere. Bryant scored just two points in the first 24 minutes, attempting only three shots and zero free throws. Showing very little of his patented aggressiveness, Bryant took on the role of facilitator. He tried to get his teammates involved, which he did to the tune of five first-half assists. And he was an exuberant cheerleader when Lakers coach Phil Jackson, ignoring the pleas of the L.A. faithful, sat him down for the first four minutes of the second quarter.

Passing is good. Cheering is good. But faced with an eight-point halftime deficit, the Lakers needed Kobe to be the MVP, not the MVT (Most Valuable Teammate).

So the question remains: What was Kobe doing?

In cases like this, you might give the benefit of the doubt to a lot of star players and say their goals were altruistic, that they were simply trying to involve their teammates. But with the often mercurial Bryant, you never really know. Remember, this is the same player who, after being roundly criticized for taking 72 shots over a three-game span in 2004, responded by attempting only one shot in the first half of the next game.

But that couldn't have been what happened here ... right? Bryant had no reason to pull another stunt like that. His city loves him. His teammates love him. Even the league has started loving him again.

So, one more time: What was Kobe Bryant doing?

Turns out, Bryant was doing exactly what he said he was doing. He wanted to get his teammates involved and he let Pau Gasol (11 first-half points) and Vladimir Radmanovic (10) do most of the heavy lifting early in the game. He wanted to, as he said afterward, "manage the game."

In the second half, Bryant simply decided to take over. Going without a breather, Bryant scored 25 points (on 10-of-18 shooting) while handing out four more assists.

"Kobe was doing a trust-a-teammate thing in the first half," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He was checking it all out and seeing where his territory was going to be. In the second half, he went to work."

The truth is, the Lakers need second-half Kobe to be the only version of Kobe in this series. While Bryant was honing his distributor skills in the first half, the Spurs were shooting 50 percent from the field and seizing control of the game. Certainly the tireless Bruce Bowen has to be given some credit for slowing Bryant, but the Spurs have a recycled strategy when it comes to defending superstars: let them get theirs, just so long as the rest of the team isn't getting it too. They didn't send double teams at Bryant or disguise a zone defense around him. They entrusted Bowen to do his thing and were willing to live with the consequences.

Bryant needs to continue to take advantage of that. He shouldn't be attempting 30 shots per night -- the Lakers are terrible when he does and that would play right into the Spurs' hands -- but when San Antonio offers openings, he needs to take them. Because the Spurs aren't going to let too many double-digit leads slip away. While the Lakers were able to recover from a 20-point third-quarter deficit, falling behind a team as methodical as San Antonio isn't sound strategy.

To avoid that, the Lakers need Bryant to continue being Bryant -- the MVP version.

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