Kobe falters down stretch

Bryant: Fatigue was no factor

The Associated PressJune 11, 2009 

— No athlete on the planet - well, at least on this side of the putting green from Tiger Woods - closes quite like Kobe Bryant. He's the ice-in-his-veins killer. The Terminator. The one you call to finish the job. Mr. Clutch.

He owns the fourth quarter.

Most of the time.

But in Game 3 of the NBA finals on Tuesday night, Bryant, looking tired and mortal, gave new life to the here-they-come-again Orlando Magic, which shot a finals-record 63 percent in a 108-104 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers and snapped an 0-for-6 franchise mark in the finals.

With the Lakers eyeing a chance to open a 3-0 series lead and with a fourth title that he has obsessed about almost within his reach, Bryant slipped up.

Woods, arms folded on his chest, sat courtside and watched Bryant falter.

The Magic saw it, too. They don't expect to see it again.

"We have to understand," Magic guard Rafer Alston said as the teams worked out in preparation of tonight's Game 4. "He's not one to let it happen on back-to-back occasions."

Bryant and the Lakers have been bouncing back since the start of the playoffs. Pursuing a 15th NBA crown one year after losing to the Boston Celtics, they are 6-0 after a playoff loss. They can regain control of the best-of-seven series, but they'd better be careful not to give Orlando any more momentum.

As it showed in Game 3, the Magic can shoot holes through any dream.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson feels his team can do more defensively to stop the Magic's shooters, but sometimes nothing can be done when shots are dropping.

"You've got to give credit where credit is due," he said. "They hit shots."

Bryant came out intent to land a knockout shot in Game 3. He eased into the offensive flow, but he soon went on a tear, scoring 17 points in the final 5:41 of the first quarter. At halftime, he had 21 and although the Magic was shooting an unconscious 75 percent, the Lakers trailed by only four points.

But in the second half, Bryant, who because of his commitment to USA Basketball has been playing nearly nonstop for three years, wore down. He shot just 3-of-10 from the field and missed four free throws. In the fourth quarter, normally his signature time, he went 2-of-6, missed all three 3-point attempts and had the ball stolen on a crucial possession in the last 30 seconds.

On Wednesday, Bryant, who has been alternately surly and serene with the media throughout this series, took offense to the notion that he had "hit the wall" in the fourth quarter.

"As far as me hitting the wall, so what if I did?" Bryant wondered. "I didn't, but so what if I did?"

What does it mean if you did?

"It means nothing," he countered.

Because?

"Because I'll run straight through it."

The Lakers aren't used to Kobe not being Kobe with the game on the line.

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