Tuesday June 15th, 2010

An opportunity.

You know that is how Kobe Bryant views Game 6 of the NBA Finals here Tuesday. You know because that's how he has always viewed the last-second shots that have defined him. He hasn't worried about missing them and he hasn't worried about losing the game. On the contrary, he has embraced the upside, the opportunity to accomplish something memorable.

His Lakers face elimination after losing the last two games in Boston to trail the Celtics 3-2. One more loss and he will have lost a Finals to the Celtics for the second time in three years. But Bryant didn't become the league's hungriest star on that kind of negative thinking.

He is focused on winning the next two games, a comeback that will earn him a fifth championship and repay Boston for the 39-point beating in Game 6 of the Finals two years ago. "You just go into the next game," he said after the Lakers' 92-86 loss in Game 5 Sunday. "We let a couple opportunities slip away. Now you go home, you've got two games at home that you need to win, and you pull your boots up and get to work."

There are reasons for worry. Andrew Bynum's swollen right knee has limited the Lakers 7-foot center to eight points, four rebounds and no blocks in 44 minutes over the last two losses. His inconsequential play enabled the Celtics to focus on limiting Pau Gasol to 12 points on 12 shots in Game 5, a decrease in production that the Lakers cannot survive Tuesday. "He's been consistent for us for a while now," said Bryant, taking the high road with his All-Star teammate, "so he can afford to have a bad game every once in a while."

That ineffectiveness convinced Bryant to attempt to take over Game 5 as he scored 23 straight Lakers points over 14 minutes of the second and third quarters. But the problem he needs to fix is at the defensive end, where the Celtics scored 35 points to pull away during his torrid streak on their way to shooting 56.3 percent overall. "They got all the hustle points in terms of loose balls and offensive rebounds down the stretch,'' said Bryant. "Defensively, we weren't very good at all. Last game it was the fourth quarter, this game it was the third quarter we didn't get any stops. They got layup after layup after layup. We're normally a great defensive team."

For their part, the Celtics will be seeking to build on their recent gains by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who each had his best game of the Finals Sunday. They will aim to control the boards (because that has been crucial throughout this series), to hold the Lakers under 42-percent shooting for a third straight game, to limit Rajon Rondo's turnovers after he was frustrated by committing seven Sunday, and to rediscover Ray Allen's range as he has missed 21 straight threes after draining a Finals record eight of them in Boston's Game 2 win in L.A.

Above all, the Celtics will try to convince themselves that Game 6 is a must-win opportunity for them as well. "When they won Game 3," said coach Doc Rivers of the Celtics' loss at home, "from that point on we felt every next game is a must game. Each game is Game 7. We said it in Game 4, we said it [in Game 5] and we'll say it again. That's how we have to approach the game. We lost our wiggle room by losing that home game. The Lakers played well enough to have homecourt advantage all year, and so it's to their advantage."

The Lakers responded to the '08 Finals loss by improving their toughness and grit. Now it's up to L.A. to treat Boston as the Lakers themselves were treated in Game 6 two years ago. Bryant does not plan on making any Rockne speeches.

"Just man up and play," he said. "What the hell is the big deal? If I have to say something to them, then we don't deserve to be champions. We're down 3� 2, go home, win one game, go into the next one. Simple as that."

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