Bryant was forced to watch an uncomfortable 14 minutes of Game 2 from the bench, much like a foul-plagued Ray Allen had to sit for extended time in Game 1. Allen channeled his frustration into eight 3-pointers in Game 2, which along with Rajon Rondo's triple-double helped the Celtics even the series at one game apiece before they returned home for the next three games.
Game 2 was the kind of game that begged for a Bryant bailout, after the Lakers' excellent ball movement in the early going (seven assists in the first eight minutes) dried up and Allen got hot. Except Bryant picked up his third foul with 3:20 left in the first half on a bump with Allen that had far less contact than a rush-hour subway. And he was called for foul No. 5 when Rondo fell down after knocking the ball away from Bryant and chasing it out of bounds a minute into the fourth quarter.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "I wasn't happy with those foul calls. Those were unusual calls. It really changed the [complexion] of this ballgame."
And it led to this rarity: Bryant had the least amount of playing time of any Lakers starter, with 34 minutes and 18 seconds. The only solace Bryant can take is that at least it wasn't personal. The whistle-happy crew of Monty McCutchen, Mike Callahan and Ken Mauer had everyone in foul trouble: Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Ron Artest, Glen Davis, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love were in the stands, and they'll probably start next season with four fouls just from being so close to this game.
Bryant had to miss two minutes of the fourth quarter, taking a seat following a hurried substitution by Phil Jackson after the Lakers were slow to realize Paul Pierce had checked back in for the Celtics during a timeout.
The Lakers actually picked up three points on the Celtics while Bryant was out. But we'll never know if he could have done more to draw more fouls and get the Celtics into the bonus sooner, or even send someone to the bench with a sixth personal.
He couldn't afford to be aggressive. It was like watching a pitcher who didn't have his fastball rely on mixing speeds and changing locations. Bryant took a little longer to initiate his moves, surveying the defense to determine where the late help would come from. He tried jab-stepping a couple of times to see if he could force their hand, the equivalent of a football team sending a receiver in motion.
When he did go on the attack, he had to pull up early, leading to some amazing examples of body control (and yet another head-scratching call, on Kendrick Perkins, for an and-one after Bryant specifically stopped short of him to avoid contact).
"You've just got to be careful," Bryant said, a typically nondescriptive answer on a night when his terse-of-late comments rated a "Speedo" on the brief scale.
He added, "I don't expect to be picking up five fouls the next game."
Superstars aren't accustomed to hearing the public address announcer call out their names for multiple fouls. In case it does happen again, there are still changes the Lakers can make that they didn't adapt to fast enough in Game 2. They failed to secure defensive rebounds, allowing the Celtics to collect 13 offensive boards and 13 second-chance points in categories the Lakers owned in Game 1.
The Lakers' offense, which has thrived at times while Bryant missed games due to injury, was reduced to too much Artest dribbling and too many Shannon Brown step-back jumpers and Jordan Farmar double-clutch 20-footers (in the latter two cases, one of each of those constitutes too many).
Odom, who picked up fouls even as the Lakers' coaches debated whether he could play with the fouls he'd already received, scored only three points.
It's doubtful the Lakers can expect another 21 points from Andrew Bynum, who matched his career playoff high Sunday. He had the luxury of two days off at home to rest his injured knee before this one, as opposed to the cross-country flight on the lone off day before Game 3.
Besides, as Bryant said: "It has nothing to do with scoring. Nothing. It's all defensively. We gave them too many easy baskets and blew too many defensive assignments. That's it."
The Celtics kept finding cutters against the Lakers' overextended defense and layupped their way to a 36-26 edge in points in the paint. And they outrebounded the Lakers 44-39, with Rondo's 12 exceeding any individual Laker.
But in Bryant's case, it is about scoring. They count on points from him, and his 21 on Sunday night were only the second time in the past 13 playoff games that he was below 30.
Even though Bryant is wired very differently than Allen, perhaps he can learn some bounce-back lessons from him.
"You have to have patience," Allen said.
Hmm, not exactly one of Bryant's attributes. Then again, foul trouble typically isn't, either. That was just one of several anomalies in Game 3: Allen's Phoenix-hot shooting, Garnett's six-point output, Shelden Williams' appearance in the NBA Finals.
About the only thing in character was Jackson's demeanor; he joked throughout his postgame news conference, apparently not getting any ominous feelings that it could potentially be his last game as the Lakers' coach at Staples Center.