Monday June 9th, 2008

BOSTON -- Starting at center for the Los Angeles Lakers, Andrew Bynum ...

The mirage of this NBA Finals is that Los Angeles was a heavy favorite to beat Boston in five or six games. The Lakers went 12-3 through the Western bracket on the legs of the league's best player and the mind of their winningest coach, but the one advantage they haven't been able to seize -- the disappearance that's killing them now -- has been the absence of Bynum. At 7-feet and 285 pounds, he would be the biggest player in this series.

Through 35 games, Bynum was leading the Lakers with 2.1 blocks and 10.2 rebounds and 63.6 percent shooting for his 13.1 points around the basket. Since midseason, he has been sidelined by a knee injury that resulted in surgery last month. His loss leaves Kobe Bryant with a dramatic mission: to find some way to overcome the Celtics' overwhelming advantage in size and physical play.

The next three games in Los Angeles are going to be fascinating to watch because of him. Because, as Bryant demonstrated in the fourth quarter of Game 2 on Sunday, he just may be able to pull it off.

"I kept telling the team, we played as poorly as we could possibly play for two and a half quarters,'' said Lakers coach Phil Jackson after Boston won 108-102 Sunday to take a 2-0 lead in the Finals. "We just can't play any worse than this.''

This is when a player like Bryant entertains, when his Lakers go from 16 points down with 3:38 remaining to making it a two-point game exactly three minutes later. There are a lot of nights during the season when he is "an unstoppable force,'' as Jackson referred to Bryant this weekend, and those are the nights his abilities are taken for granted. Bryant's fourth NBA championship seemed predestined not so long ago while he was breezing through the West and the Celtics were stalling and struggling in their declining conference.

But now, he has to find a way to overcome an opponent that attacks the weakened paint of the Lakers defense like a football team rich with running backs that loves to pound it up the middle.

As a 6-5 wing, there is little Bryant can do to fix this interior problem. At best, he can inspire his teammates while helping to snuff out the penetrations of Ray Allen or Paul Pierce, who, in particular, was able to burst or spin past the first line of defense to create layups and dunks for the Celtics' big men he hit cutting backdoor. Bynum wasn't under the basket to stop any of them.

The most blatant example of the Celtics' superiority was the 21 points and 13 free throws earned in 15 minutes by Leon Powe, a former second-round pick playing in his second year. Powe is listed as 6-8, which is an exaggeration: He is an undersized post-up forward who had been averaging 4.6 points in the playoffs, and he was expected to have difficulty matching up with the Lakers' fleet of perimeter shooters. It turns out that he is inflicting the matchup problems on them.

"Leon Powe gets more foul shots than our whole team,'' said Jackson, whose Lakers earned 10 free throws. "That's ridiculous. I've never seen a game like that in all these years I've coached in the Finals. Unbelievable.''

Jackson was of two minds about this game. On the one hand he was angry with the officials for the Celtics' 38-10 advantage in free-throw attempts ("I have no question about the fact that my players got fouled but didn't get to the line''), while on the other he was upset that Powe was able to drive more than half of the court for an uncontested dunk in the third quarter ("A poor play, an awful play'').

In the meantime, Bryant was 7-of-16 with four turnovers entering the fourth quarter with the Lakers trailing 83-61. What happened next may present a formula for their revival:

He came out of the huddle urging backup guard Sasha Vujacic to stick tight with Allen, especially in transition. The Lakers were embarrassed and on the verge of needing to win four of the remaining five games against a team they'd been unable to stop; but there was Bryant, raising a fist of solidarity to Vujacic as play resumed. It's no coincidence that Allen, who entered the quarter with 15 points on 10 shots, was held to one field goal attempt throughout the final period.

During second-half timeouts, Bryant could be seen demanding rather than pleading. He was in the business of raising standards. "Get our beep in gear,'' said Bryant, quoting himself while deleting his own expletives. "Play beep harder. A bunch of other beeps. It's beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. Eddie Murphy Raw times 10.''

The Lakers would outscore Boston 41-25 in that quarter, going 14-of-22 (after being held to 27-of-61 previously). Bryant would scorch the Celtics for 13 points and five assists. They were trailing 102-88 when Bryant hit a three to launch a run to which he would contribute nine points. Pierce was turning over the ball and the Lakers were on the verge of forcing overtime or stealing a win outright.

"The goal was to cut it down to 10 with about seven minutes to go,'' said Bryant, who finished with 30 points. "We weren't able to do that, so after that it was about slicing it and getting it to single digits and applying more and more pressure. That's what we did, and I think they learned a lot tonight -- because we're a young team and that shows you're never really out of a game.''

It's a good bet that Bryant is going to keep the Lakers in this series. The MVP of the league is up against it, and his name isn't Dirk Nowitzki. More than any other player in the league he can go where he pleases, and he can make any shot imaginable within 24 feet. No one is better under pressure or in a tight game.

The Celtics had enough to hold onto this Game 2 win and they have seized a huge advantage in the series overall, but they have also created a dynamic that won't frighten Bryant in the least. On the contrary: No one will be looking forward more to the next three games.

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