Tuesday June 8th, 2010

BOSTON -- Kobe Bryant had a lot on his mind. The questions seemed to interrupt his larger thoughts.

"We fought pretty hard to get back in the game," he said an hour after the Lakers' Game 2 loss Sunday in Los Angeles. "And then we let the game slip away."

"I asked you about the homecourt issue," a reporter reminded him.

"Well,'' said Bryant quietly, "we've just got to go into Boston and win."

Six months of work vested in earning homecourt advantage had been ceded in the last 48 minutes, of which Bryant had played 34. Was he thinking about the foul troubles that limited him to 21 points? Was he wounded that his rival shooting guard Ray Allen (32 points, including a Finals' record eight threes) had done more to help the Celtics than Bryant had done for his Lakers? He wasn't saying.

"The key factor is turnovers," said Bryant distractedly. "We'll continue to pound the ball inside, but we can't give them easy baskets in transition."

"That's it?" another reporter asked.

"That's it," said Bryant.

But that can't be all of it as Bryant looks ahead to Game 3 here Tuesday. The Lakers have developed their strength around the basket by playing through 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who combined for 46 points in Game 2 while devouring Boston's allotment of frontcourt fouls. Shouldn't that have been enough for the Lakers to hold serve at home? Gasol was dominating his matchup against Kevin Garnett, toothless in the first two games, and Bynum looked healthier than he has all playoffs while combining with Gasol to block 13 Boston shots Sunday.

But the Lakers lost ground in all other areas. The Celtics managed to outrebound them (thanks to Rajon Rondo's game-high 12 boards) and outscore them in the paint 36-26 (thanks, again, to Rondo for his triple-double earned by penetrating steadily in transition). Glen Davis, who had been hammered by L.A.'s big men in the first half, kept at it in the final two quarters to combine with Rondo for nine offensive rebounds overall to go with Davis' eight points and seven rebounds. The Celtics chased down more loose balls and leveraged more uncontested scores than the Lakers could survive.

Now the Lakers' simplest goal is to win at least one of the next three games in Boston to force a Game 6 (and potentially a Game 7) in Los Angeles. As hard as it is to imagine the Celtics sweeping the next three games, the Lakers won't win a road game without responding to one or more of these crucial issues:

Will they realize better production from Lamar Odom, who managed three points in 15 minutes amid foul trouble of his own in Game 2? Will Ron Artest play within the offense after going 1-for-10? Will Bynum maintain the health of his injured knee on short rest? Can they continue to bottle up Paul Pierce and Garnett as they did Sunday -- when they combined for 16 points on 4-of-16 shooting -- and can they keep Rondo and Allen from hurting them in transition?

Most important of all, will Bryant return to his Game 1 form of 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 39 minutes? Or was his Game 2 decline the beginning of a trend the Celtics will exploit to box in Bryant, and ultimately his team?

All of these questions seemed to be swirling about him late Sunday night in Los Angeles.

"You've just got to be careful," said Bryant of the five fouls he gathered over the course of Game 2. "I don't expect to be picking up five fouls the next game. You're trying to stay even keel. You don't get too high, don't get too low after a win or a loss. You just go into the next one and take care of business."

Even as he spoke about this lost game, his thoughts appeared to be drifting ahead to the next one. No more reaching fouls. Quicker side-to-side ball movement. The necessary discipline was beginning to show in his reaction now. He was not going to appear defeated after one loss.

"It's the most important game," he said of the next one. "Game 1 was the most important. Game 2 was the most important. Now it's Game 3. It's just the next game, simple as that."

Can Bryant play the next game as simply and productively as he and his Lakers played Game 1? That was the unanswerable question as he looked ahead to Tuesday night.

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