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|Kobe Bryant showed his familiar Kobe Face, leading the Lakers in the fourth quarter to their 104-99 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.|
After looking mortal against the throng of defenders the Thunder threw at him in the first round, he treated each Utah opponent as an individual stage to showcase his skills, shooting 7-for-11 in isolation situations against the Jazz in Game 1, versus just 17-for-43 in iso's in six games against the Thunder. He went 7-for-9 against Wesley Matthews, 3-for-6 against C.J. Miles, 2-for-4 against various other individuals and 2-for-2 when he was double-teamed. "We put ourselves in a little bit of a hole there in the fourth quarter and let them gain all the momentum," Bryant said. "At that point, you just got to buckle down. It's tough to change momentum when it's that late in the game." It's not quite as tough when you have a momentum manufacturer like Bryant, a guy who is quite simply, the best clutch player alive today. Despite what people thought against the Thunder, when his injured right knee seemed to be slowing him down so much that his "clutchness" was becoming an irrelevant asset, his body is improving and his killer instinct is as healthy as ever. "It's a lot better," Bryant said about his knee on Sunday. "I was able to move around. It was very encouraging for me to be able to move around and do what I wanted to do." It should be encouraging for the Lakers as well. While the bench almost blew this game for the Lakers, their ineptitude changed the complexion of the game to the point where Bryant's best skill was needed and he got to sharpen it. Bryant missed a game winner in the closeout game against Oklahoma City, in part because he was out of practice. Even though he hit seven go-ahead game-winning daggers during the year, he hadn't attempted one since that Orlando game on March 7. When the Lakers had a chance for a game-tying shot on the final possession on April 11 against Portland, Jackson drew up a 3-pointer for Pau Gasol rather than going to Bryant. There was a false rumor floating around for years that Bryant used to sabotage big leads when he was in high school so he could get the thrill of coming through in a clutch situation at the end. I talked to Bryant's coach at Lower Merion, Gregg Downer, about it before the start of the playoffs. "When he was accused of choosing the dramatic route," Downer said, "that whole concept was ridiculous and couldn't be further from the truth." Downer explained that his high school team wasn't a "juggernaut" that won by "40-50 points" and so Bryant merely found himself in tight games with the chance to perform. Sounds kind of like the Lakers. L.A. looked like it was going to run the Jazz out of the building, but if you've watched the Lakers at all this year, you know they're just not that type of team. They've yet to figure out how to knock a team down and keep them there. The Lakers aren't just after a series-opening win against the Jazz, but a championship at the end of June. A couple of the teams out East -- the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic in particular -- have looked like they have it together a little bit more than L.A. at this point. But while the Cavs can claim the MVP in James and the Magic have the Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Howard, neither team has a player like Bryant who is at his best when a game, or a title, is on the line. The Lakers will need The Kobe Face to show up again at some point in these playoffs. Sunday was as good a time as any to make sure the face still fits. ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.