Kobe Bryant paced. He walked in circles, he swayed from side to side, and he rocked onto his heels. With 8:46 left in an NBA Finals game, his team was down six on the road. Show time.
Only the show was on hold. The coaches were huddled, and the players were waiting silently for instruction. The five players who were in the game sat in a row. Bryant stood. He still wasn't going back in.
After the game, Phil Jackson said that, though Bryant would never admit it, he thought the star guard was tired, which is why he held him out of the first five minutes of the fourth quarter -- much longer than his usual rest. (Bryant, as promised, would not admit it, saying "I was fine.")
If he was tired, though, I wouldn't wonder why. He had been extremely aggressive as a scorer and defender all first half. Then the 30-year-old Bryant waged a battle royale with 23-year-old Courtney Lee through the first eight minutes of the third quarter.
When Bryant caught the ball, instead of staying an arm's length away, as many Magic defenders have, Lee got right up into Bryant's rib cage. When Bryant drove, Lee worried more about preventing easy shots, and less about racking up fouls. (By the end of the quarter, Lee and Bryant would be the only two players in the game with as many as three fouls.) When Bryant posted up, Lee got low and used every bit of muscle he had to bump Bryant from his preferred spot.
After making eight of 15 in the first half, over the eight minutes of the third quarter, before Lee checked out for good, Bryant scored just two points, on free throws. Bryant fought and fought -- into the post, around screens, through various sets. He touched the ball plenty, but didn't even get a shot off during those eight minutes.
Bryant has a tendency not to acknowledge opponents getting under his skin, but Lee readily admits that the battle was intense and a little personal. "Basically, I got a little frustrated with it. I was like man, it's time to compete. ... He wants it bad and we want it bad, too. We're not going to just give it away."
At one point, it appeared like Bryant and Lee threw simultaneous elbows at each other. "A couple plays," says Lee "we got into a little scuffle, but there's no harm in that. We were competing. ... The referees did a good job of telling us to keep it clean, to keep the elbows down, but other than that we were competing.
Can we expect to see more of the same in Game 4? Lee does. "He's aggressive," he says of Bryant. "That's how it's supposed to be. It's not easy at this point. Everybody's chasing that trophy."