BOSTON -- The best player was no match for the best team.
"I've seen some pretty stiff ones and this was right up there with them," Bryant said of the Celtics' defense. "They definitely were the best defense I've seen in the entire playoffs."
Bryant knew all along the Celtics were going to force someone besides him to beat them, and there was nobody else in purple and gold up for the job.
Bryant finished with 22 points, but shot only 7-of-22 from the field and was quiet after a sizzling start for the second straight game.
The Lakers needed an MVP performance from Bryant. Bryant needed help.
Neither got what they wanted -- and they're not getting another championship ring this season, either.
"Kobe started off that game with a hot hand and then I think his legs, you could see his shot was flat," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He didn't get his shot going and it really changed the course of the game. He started out so strong and then I think he only made three field goals the rest of the game, so that really was a change.
"I think one of the things they did is they really focused on him and made sure that he wasn't going to be the guy that hurt them, and we didn't have guys step up in this instance tonight."
Bryant averaged 31.9 points through the first three rounds, tops among all players in the postseason. But the Celtics limited him to 25.7 per game and 40 percent shooting, rotating a number of defenders on him and making sure there was always help behind if Bryant did try to get to the basket.
And there was no one else to pick up the slack. Lamar Odom didn't have a field goal until the fourth quarter, when the Lakers were already down by 29 points. Pau Gasol took only seven shots and finished with 11 points -- and he was their second-leading scorer until deep in the fourth quarter, when Odom went to work against the reserves who played the last few minutes while Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were busy celebrating on the sideline.
With the Lakers' season on the line and no other choice, Jackson left Bryant on the floor for the entire second quarter, instead of his usual break early in the period. Maybe the rest would have been a better idea.
Bryant missed all four shots and committed two turnovers in the period, when the game was decided after Boston outscored Los Angeles 34-15. And when he desperately needed his teammates to pick him up, the rest of the Lakers combined for only three field goals in the period, and the Celtics had a commanding 58-35 lead by the time it was over.
"They broke the game when they got ahead by 23 points at halftime and we didn't respond to it," Gasol said.
When Bryant tried to carry them back in the third quarter, the Celtics were ready for him. Rajon Rondo picked him clean and Bryant had to race back as the Lakers tried to catch and foul the point guard, with Bryant tumbling on top of Rondo just a few feet from Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Even Belichick, one of the top defensive minds in his sport, couldn't have cooked up a scheme as good as the Celtics'.
Later, a pretty spin move got Bryant close to the basket, but P.J. Brown swatted his shot off the backboard to start a fast break the other way.
Bryant was having his way early, scoring 11 points in the first quarter. By then it was already clear that a big night from the league's MVP would be their only chance: At one point in the first half, when it was still a game, Bryant had 12 points. The rest of the Lakers had combined for 12.
It was the kind of inept performance from the supporting cast that Bryant saw too often last season, leading him to rip team management last summer for not getting him enough help, then declare he wanted to be traded.
The Lakers refused to part with their superstar, then got off to a strong start when it turned out the teammates that Bryant thought so little of weren't all that bad.
Just not nearly good enough to help him beat the Celtics.
"We have to get some players if we're going to come back and repeat, to have that kind of aggressiveness that we need," Jackson said.