- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- If you're the kind of person who believes in bad omens, the Los Angeles Lakers lost Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday as soon as Kobe Bryant slipped on his red-laced, neon-soled, purple cheetah-spotted sneakers before the game.
The last time Bryant wore that style of his signature shoe was Christmas Day against the Chicago Bulls, opening night for the 2011-12 season.
In case the mere sight of Bryant's footwear didn't jog your memory as to what became of the Lakers against the Bulls that day, here's a quick synopsis:
The Lakers led by 11 with just less than four minutes remaining, then it all turned. Bryant missed two of his final three shots and had two turnovers. The rest of the team went 0-for-4 from the foul line and 0-for-1 from the field. The Lakers lost by a point.
Fast-forward 77 games and 147 days later to the Lakers handing over a 3-1 series lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and you realize not much has changed since then.
The Lakers led by 13 points in the fourth quarter this time around, with just more than eight minutes remaining, and then it all turned. Bryant missed seven of his final eight shots before putting in a meaningless leaner with 0.7 seconds left, when L.A. trailed by five. The rest of the team went 1-for-6 from the field and had two turnovers. The Lakers lost by three, 103-100.
On one hand, the Lakers weren't even in position to run away with the win in either game without Bryant's 28 points in the season opener or his 38 points in Game 4. On the other, there's no denying Bryant played a part in squandering the lead instead of salting away the win.
It's unfortunately become the calling card of this Lakers team. They didn't do it just in Game 4 and on Christmas. (It was Christmas in May in Game 2 against the Thunder, as well, when the Lakers let a seven-point lead disappear in the final two minutes.)
"We're better than Santa Claus giving out gifts," Andrew Bynum said after Game 2. "We like giving out gifts. We give out games, contracts and rings."
The unintended generosity dates back to last season's playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks, when the Lakers led by 16 points in the third quarter of Game 1 and seven points with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter of Game 3 in their eventual sweep out of the second round.
So why, Bryant was asked after Game 4, do the Lakers have such a hard time protecting these big leads late in games?
"Well, in the fourth quarter, they're surrounding me and they're surrounding Andrew," Bryant said. "It's as simple as that."
Of course, that puts the blame square on Pau Gasol's shoulders.
Gasol turned the ball over with 33.9 seconds left Saturday in a tied game, trying to pass it to Metta World Peace out on the perimeter, only to have the ball snatched up by Kevin Durant's long reach. That led to Durant's game-winning 3-pointer on the other end.
"It's just a bad read on Pau's part," Bryant said.
In a similar situation late in Game 2 with the Lakers trying to nurse a lead in the final minutes, Bryant was the one throwing it away and into the "Go-Go-Gadget" arms of Durant.
"That's a great play by Durant," Bryant said at the time. "It's unconventional. He just jumped the passing lane and got a good steal."
The blame game is a tricky one, isn't it?
There's plenty of ways to frame Gasol's turnover in the aftermath and none of them changes the result of what happened, but each one is revealing.
Bryant chose to blame Gasol, not only for the turnover, but for his overall play in Game 4, which he finished with just 10 points and five rebounds.
"Pau's got to be more assertive," Bryant said. "He's the guy that they're leaving. When he's catching the ball, he's looking to pass. He's got to be aggressive. He's got to shoot the ball. He's got to drive the ball to the basket."
World Peace pointed the finger at himself for Gasol's turnover.
"I support him," World Peace said. "I'll take the blame for that. Maybe I should've cut. ... He saw me open; I should've cut. It's my fault."
Gasol was so bewildered by the stunning chain of events that turned what might have been a 2-all series tie into a daunting 3-1 deficit for L.A. that he didn't know which story to stick to.
"I thought it was a good pass; it's just Durant was active and long and got a piece of the ball," Gasol said.
And then: "I could have probably taken a shot at that point. If I could go back, I probably would have."
And later still: "If you look, I didn't take a shot the whole fourth quarter. That's a reality, too."
No matter where the blame ends up in the shell game that is a postgame news conference after a devastating loss, the result stays the same.
"We're all upset and extremely frustrated, but I don't think anybody is worried about going into OKC and getting a win," Bryant said, doing one last frame job to try to salvage some positivity about the prospect of winning three straight to get to the Western Conference finals.
It sounded as hollow as Bryant's confidence last year during the playoff series against Dallas, when the Lakers found themselves down 3-0 and he suggested they could become the first team in NBA history to dig itself out of that hole and advance.
Call it another bad omen.