On the game's final play, L.A.'s Trevor Ariza passed in bounds to Kobe Bryant, 25 feet out.

It went up. And off.

Way, way off.

The shot nearly hit a passing train down the street.

At that moment — and all the other 48 minutes in the Jazz's Game 3 playoff win over the Lakers on Thursday night — one thing was abundantly clear: The Lakers need Bryant's scoring, after all.

Chalk one up for the guys who make the big bucks. The Jazz's Deron Williams scored on a fader with 2.2 seconds remaining to score the game-winner. That left the Lakers with a final chance, and who did they go to?

Kobe, naturally.

Never mind he was working on a 5-of-24 shooting night.

As the saying goes, you dance with the person who brought you — or at least the person who's making the cash.

So it's a 2-1 series, and the Jazz can say they didn't mail it in. That wasn't always a certainty. But thanks to Carlos Boozer's 23-point, 22-rebound night, and Williams' last-second play, it's not academic yet.

One of the most disconcerting things for the Jazz, going into Thursday's game, was that Bryant hadn't really taken off. He had 24 points in Game 1 and 26 in Game 2, but both were below his regular-season average.

In both prior outings, his first quarter scoring was almost non-existent — three points each.

Yet he wasn't worried. That's a big reason he was the league's Most Valuable Player last year. He seldom forces things to get his points, which is a far cry from the young, impetuous Kobe.

In the first two playoff games, he seemed at ease simply drawing defenders and scaring the Jazz with the mere threat.

Meanwhile, others like Ariza, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were having a party on the Jazz's tab.

Just like the insurance company slogans, Bryant was there if they needed him.

Like a stormy weather forecast, this sort of thing can work on an opponent's head. But that 's not to say Bryant works overtime at psyching people out. Who needs that when you can simply outplay your opponent? He wouldn't stoop to the level of, say, Dennis Rodman, who used to distract teams with his trash-talking, dirty play and entanglements.

Dunking on your noggin is psychology enough.

Asked by one reporter at Thursday's shoot-around to if Bryant ranks among the top players who "plays mental games," Jazz forward Matt Harpring replied, "No. No, I wouldn't even put him in the top 20."

Because?

"I don't think he's a guy that plays mental games. How 'bout that?"

Sounds about right.

Added Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, "I've gotten a lot of nice letters — and I've read every one of 'em — telling me how to guard him," added Sloan. "I'll try anything. I'd like to know if anyone has any way to stop him."

Turned out the Jazz found a way in some dogged defense by Ronnie Brewer.

Oh, and one other thing: Bryant stopping himself.

If ever the Jazz were to shut Bryant down, this was a good one. Trailing 2-0, they came back to ESA talking like it all could turn around.

And it worked.

Bryant started out "Patient Kobe" but, after going the first quarter without a field goal (0-for-4), he turned into "Restless Kobe," forcing up some shots, settling for jumpers at other times.

Midway through the game, he was an awful 1-for-10.

The last time he shot that poorly for a half was a 1-for-11 showing — nine years ago.

Brewer was on his back and inside his shirt.

It didn't hurt that the Jazz were back home. If there's one thing that improves good defense, it's a good, loud house. Indeed, the arena was one of the Jazz's last hopes. It's where they always made their stand.

This year, only four teams had more home wins than the Jazz (33). Last year, their 37 wins were the most home wins in the league. The previous season, they had the third-most home wins.

That's enough to give even the Lakers pause.

If that wasn't going to do it — along with, finally, a great Jazz start — nothing would.

And it did.

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Bryant warmed up enough to score three quick field goals in the early third quarter. Soon the Laker lead was up to 13. But the Jazz roared back, and in the end, the series became a series again.

The Jazz needed a win.

The Lakers just need Bryant back to being himself.

E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com