Monday June 16th, 2008

This is an NBA Finals worthy of a memorable give-and-take argument down to the buzzer. It deserves to culminate in one of those games for the ages, or at least for the season. But that's the one thing this series has yet to give us, and it's mainly because the Lakers haven't been up to it.

The drama in this series has been one-sided. If anybody is rising out of a wheelchair to smoke a couple of big threes, it's Paul Pierce in Game 1. If any team is recovering from 24 to win on the road, it's the Celtics in Game 4. If any otherworldly spirit is having some kind of mystical influence on this incarnation of the rivalry, it's Red Auerbach.

Even in successfully forcing a return to Boston with their 103-98 win Sunday in Game 5, the Lakers have been unable to establish strengths that they can explore again and again. In the meantime, Pierce (38 points on 22 shots) has been everything the Celtics have prevented Kobe Bryant (25 points on 21 shots) from becoming. "We couldn't stop Pierce,'' said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, "and that was really putting us in jeopardy.''

I have been as guilty as anyone of expecting a miraculous performance to burst forth from Bryant at any moment. That he has been unable to do so should be, by now, an entirely predictable outcome. I keep expecting him to chip in at 17 or eagle No. 18, like somebody else in another sport whose name at the moment escapes me. How about slamming in a last-shot birdie to force a playoff? I'm sure I've seen something like that elsewhere ...

It's not like I'm blaming Bryant for going 3-for-13 after his opening 15-point quarter Sunday. "Tom Thibodeau was an assistant coach with the Rockets,'' recalled Bryant of the current Celtics' defensive coordinator, "and I know when we played them, their philosophy was anybody but.'' Neither Bryant nor anybody else has been surprised to find Ray Allen or Pierce bumping him on the perimeter while daring him to drive, knowing that one or more big help defenders will be arriving any second to force Bryant to give up the ball. This is not unlike the poor treatment LeBron James received in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Bryant is averaging 26.4 points in the Finals, which surely isn't bad, and he's shooting 42.2 percent from the floor, which is better than the 35.5 precent by James in his turn against Boston last month. But the Celtics have limited Kobe just enough to force the ball elsewhere, and it has become obvious now that he has no reliable No. 2 star to bookend with him, and that his supporting cast is trying to learn tricks in this Finals that elder Celtics like James Posey, P.J. Brown and Eddie House picked up ages ago.

"They're going to throw the whole kitchen sink at me,'' Bryant said. "Could I force myself to get 40? Yeah. But is that better for our ball club? No. We've got guys open, I'm going to move the ball and do what I need to do.

"I think it was important tonight for me to get off to a quick start, just so my team could feed off that energy. Once I did that, it was important for me to step back and bring the other guys along as opposed to staying hot or continuing to go with it. That's what's been successful for us.''

A chicken-or-egg argument has been in play for both teams. In Pierce's case, he has been able to exploit open lanes because the Celtics have spread the floor with shooters from Allen to Garnett to Posey; they've even limited Rajon Rondo's minutes lately because he hasn't been aggressive enough with the ball. Bryant finds no room to operate because his teammates don't command enough respect from the Celtics defense. He responds by trying to do the right thing, but, in this game, he created more turnovers (six) than assists (four).

No GM would trade Bryant for Pierce straight up, but Pierce has had the greater say in this series with the help of Allen and Garnett, who Sunday was running out past the three-point line to set clobbering screens on Bryant. "We were getting beat on a Pierce-Garnett screen-roll that got higher and higher as they got up toward half-court,'' said Jackson. "They extended our defense and Pierce was able to break us down.''

The Celtics were trailing 97-95 in the final minute and on the verge of upending the Lakers once and for all when Bryant sensed Garnett coming out to set another screen for Pierce. This time, Bryant prevented him from squeezing in between them; as Pierce tried to slide by, Kobe reached in and tapped away his dribble to Lamar Odom.

"We needed to get an easy hoop,'' said Bryant. "Their defense was tightening on us, and it was important for us to get out in transition.''

It was the key play of the game, and Bryant supplied it defensively. His reward was a pass ahead from Odom as he leaked out for the rare uncontested dunk that became their clinching basket. Afterward, there was much talk of how balanced the L.A. scoring had been among Odom (20), Gasol (19), Derek Fisher (15) and Jordan Farmar (11), but too much can be made of that: The Lakers established similar balance on the night of their Game 4 collapse.

Having survived the Finals on his home court, the best player in basketball returns to Boston with his young, overmatched team. "A lot of people say, 'Kobe, you have to go out for 40 or 50,' '' he said. "But that's not how we play. That's not what's going to win us championships. We've got to stick together, ride this out as a unit, and that's what we're going to do.''

It's hard to argue with that. And yet I keep expecting to see that 40- or 50-point game, as if he has it in him and he's waiting for the right moment to let it fly.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.