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Saturday, January 9, 2010
Blazers' Webster gets to defend his idol

By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com

PORTLAND -- Kobe Bryant's brilliance hurt him on Friday.

And that's not saying he was brilliant on Friday.

He was far from it, actually, missing 23 of his 37 shot attempts in the Lakers' 107-98 loss to the Trail Blazers, L.A.'s second loss in a row and ninth straight in Portland.

But if Bryant hadn't had been so darn good in the past, maybe the Blazers wouldn't have been so ready for him. What was brilliant on Friday was Blazers coach Nate McMillan's defensive game plan set up to cage the Mamba.

It's funny how your past successes become a blueprint available to your enemies to examine in order to force you into future failure.

It's the reason why Phil Jackson lives by the mantra, "You're only a success the moment of a successful act."

The only thing more constant for Bryant and the Lakers than their you-can-count-on-it loss at the Rose Garden is their opponent bringing its best effort every night of the season against them.

"I'll tell you one thing, it's a lot easier to get motivated when you're playing against a team like that and a player like that," Blazers forward Martell Webster said, after drawing the primary defensive responsibilities of guarding Bryant. "I had my heart on my sleeve a little bit and I wanted to prove that I could get down, to myself, and guard him."

Webster's heart may have been on his sleeve, but Bryant's signature was on his shoes.

Webster was matched up against the player he idolized so much growing up, that when he followed Bryant's preps-to-pros route to the league, he started his career wearing No. 8 in his honor. He's since switched to No. 23 but he was still wearing a pair of Zoom Kobe Vs on Friday.

Portland coach Nate McMillan called it Webster's best game as a professional. He shadowed Bryant through screens, prodded him in face-up opportunities, harassed him when he put the ball on the floor and bodied him when he entered the lane.

"I didn't stop him [but] I forced him to shoot over a contested hand," Webster said.

Webster brought it to Bryant kinetically and McMillan supplied the challenge strategically.

Bryant calls McMillan, one of his assistant coaches on the Team USA in the Beijing Olympics, a defensive "mastermind."

At Los Angeles' practice on Thursday, Phil Jackson listed the defensive schemes that McMillan has employed on Bryant in the past, complimenting his adversary's game plan.

"They high-side, they rotate, they front, if he's on the post they send a double-team guy down there on the passes that go in," Jackson said. "So they've developed a strategy that's pretty effective."

Jackson was describing how the Blazers change their defense possession by possession, hoping never to allow Bryant to get comfortable.

Bryant said that McMillan started to send traps at him whenever they played after he torched the Blazers for 65 points back in March of 2007.

Again, Bryant's brilliance came back to haunt him. McMillan knew that Bryant was going to be expecting rotating defenses and traps around every corner. He knew Bryant would prepare himself to defeat them. So he did something nobody expected: putting Webster on Bryant one-on-one.

"They are not a team that you can be predictable against," McMillan said. "What I mean by that, if you give them the same look, Kobe knows that you're going to double-team him every time, he's too smart."

McMillan outsmarted the smart kid.

Bryant started off 5-for-8 from the floor, scoring on all jump shots. Instead of scrapping the one-on-one coverage, McMillan stuck to it and kept Webster isolated on Bryant -- admirer on hero.

It was a pretty simple plan and it's nothing new. The Celtics used it in the Finals against Bryant, conceding jumpers so long as the paint remained as protected as the president.

When Bryant got to the lane, they doubled and fed into Bryant's machismo as he tried to score one-on-two or one-on-three. When Bryant adjusted in the third quarter and started whipping it out to open 3-point shooters on the wing once he got in the middle, they went back to one-on-one coverage on him and lived with it if he still was able to contort his body like only he can to convert something down low.

Portland opened up a 20-point lead before Bryant really got anything going close to the hoop.

"He's one of the greats, you got to bring your best," Webster said. "It's like if you go to Madison Square Garden you got to play your best, everybody's watching."

It shouldn't be surprising that an admitted Bryant fan would evoke Madison Square Garden to describe the most spectacular of stages. The Garden is a place that still gets Bryant so geeked that he does things like score 61 points when he plays there.

Now Bryant, one man, is supplying the same type of motivation to perform to his opponents that a whole arena does for him.

The idea isn't lost on Bryant; he knows that his success has created dozens of monsters around the league who want to replicate the accomplishments he's had.

"It's crazy because they kind of grow up with my mentality and it's biting me in the [behind] right now," Bryant said.

He smiled when he said it and even mentioned three times how happy he was that Webster was able to come back from chronic foot injuries to revive his career, even if it did come at Bryant's expense.

He doesn't have to worry. As good as everybody else is at turning Bryant's successes into future failures, Bryant is even better at turning failures back into future successes.