BOSTON -- It's a familiar look, one easily identifiable from Oklahoma City to Salt Lake City, from Phoenix to Boston. The jaw juts out, the nostrils start to flare and the eyes practically glow from the upward flowing fuel of anger and excitement. It's Kobe, doin' work.
Kobe Bryant wore that look throughout the third quarter in Thursday night's Game 4, while the 18,624 green-clad fans in attendance wore one completely different. It first appeared on his face at the 4:43 mark, when Bryant knocked down a 25-foot bomb off a nifty feed from Pau Gasol. Two minutes later, the look added a snarl, when Bryant canned an impossible 22-foot 3-pointer from the corner with a cadre of Celtics fans hurling insults into his ears. As the ball settled into the hoop, Bryant whirled shouted something back in their direction. He did it again on the next possession, when he knocked down a 24-foot bomb just a few feet from that same spot.
"The guy is Kobe Bryant," shrugged Celtic coach Doc Rivers after the game. "I actually thought we made it tough. He made some unbelievable shots."
Rivers, of course, could afford to be generous with his praise. His team won. Despite Bryant's 33-point, six-rebound effort, the Celtics were able to outlast the Lakers in the fourth quarter thanks to an even better effort by their own second unit. Though Bryant continued to put up big numbers (12 in the fourth), the rest of his team couldn't slow the Celtics 36-point fourth quarter onslaught. And with his team looking to him to pull them from the fire, Bryant finally succumbed to the fatigue of 43 grueling minutes.
"He was tired," said Laker coach Phil Jackson. "You know, physically I thought he had to work too hard in the course of the game and he couldn't finish it out the way he wanted to finish it out."
Indeed, the Celtic made Bryant work. A cacophony of whistles prevented Boston from imposing their will physically on Bryant in the first three games but with the trio of Scott Foster, Eddie F. Rush and Greg Willard calling a looser contest, the Celtics were free to grind Bryant into the parquet. First, Ray Allen. Then, Tony Allen. Each defender Bryant faced felt comfortable planting arms, hands and elbows into his back and swiping at his shooting hand whenever Bryant rose up on the perimeter. When he attacked the rim, there were at least two defenders waiting to rudely greet him before he got there.
"They are a great scheming team," said Bryant. "They have a strategy in place and they execute it really well. It's a great defense. It's right up there with the best of them."
Scheme all they want, Boston can't devise anything to stop this Bryant. This was the same Bryant that canned two impossible turnarounds in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Suns, the last of which prompted Alvin Gentry to smile and shake his head in 'what-else-can-my-guys-do' exasperation. The Celtics can jar him, hit him, send three defenders at him, but for however long this series lasts, Kobe Bryant will not be denied.
"I'm not really concerned about [making adjustments], to be honest with you," said Bryant. "I'm more concerned about getting rebounds and getting the loose balls and stuff like that. When push comes to shove, I can always get a bucket."
Truer words have not been spoken, at least not in this series. The Celtics have slowed Dwyane Wade and stifled LeBron James. They've marginalized Rashard Lewis and shut down Vince Carter. But Bryant is a different breed in the playoffs. It may take some impossible shots but, time and again, Bryant has proven that on this stage, the impossible is very much possible. Sure, Bryant will need help to win this series. He needs Pau Gasol to rise to the occasion and Andrew Bynum to squeeze three more games out of his achy knee. He needs Derek Fisher to knock down open shots and Ron Artest to play in control. But if he gets that help -- just enough of it -- Bryant has served notice that he is ready to put this team on his shoulders.