LOS ANGELES Kobe Bryant did his job, in a way.
Good thing for him Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom did theirs.
Nobody leaped tall buildings in a single bound. Nobody lit up the night sky. It was, in fact, fairly workmanlike.
Sometimes it's not all that glamorous, but at this stage, neither the Jazz nor Lakers is asking for art.
So now that Game 5 is over, could they pleeeease get back to actual basketball?
The Jazz are one game from vacation, following a 111-104 loss to the Lakers, Wednesday night. All that buildup. All that back-talk. Sort of anti-climactic, really.
Bryant , he of the injured back, was good but not special. This was no Michael-Jordan-with-a-fever type moment. He finished with 26 points, but got off only 10 shots. Thirteen of his points were from the free-throw line.
Still, he did do one important thing: He got the Lakers going. That counts for something.
When flying with the
eagles isn't possible, sometimes roosting with the pigeons is enough.
Gasol and Odom combined for 43 points, enough to make up for Bryant's shortfall.
Now the series moves back to Salt Lake, where the story hopefully will be more about basketball and less about lumbar pain.
Although there actually was a game Wednesday, in some ways it took a distant second to the injury story, i.e. Bryant's overtaxed, under-rested, overexposed back. After twisting it on Sunday, the injury became the focus of the series.
Whether he would play wasn't the issue. He said all along he would. Whether he would be hampered, nobody knew. Lakers coach Phil Jackson said even if Bryant was on the court as a non-scorer, that would be OK.
A Rolls still drives like a Rolls, even with a dent.
That was true on Wednesday.
Besides, playoff injury stories tend to get bigger than the games themselves.
If Bryant winces, the time stops.
That's actually understandable when you consider Kobe is Kobe, and L.A. is L.A.
Nothing beats a good battered-but-unbowed hero story.
Injury or no, the Lakers didn't waste an opportunity to turn the focus away from the game which is an old Phil Jackson trick. Get the opponent thinking about something peripheral. Take the focus away from the Jazz winning two straight. Send the media on a goose chase. Get them agonizing over Bryant's injury, rather than the fact the Lakers' momentum had evaporated.
But Bryant's injury was actually worrisome to Jerry Sloan, perhaps as much as to Jackson. He has seen this before. In 1997, with the championship series tied 2-2, Chicago's Michael Jordan showed up with a reported 102-degree temperature. All he did was score 38 points to lead the Bulls to victory over the Jazz. Next game they wrapped up the title.
"That makes me a little bit uncomfortable," said Sloan, when asked on Tuesday about Bryant's injury. "Most great players play better when they're hurt than when they're not."
On Wednesday, Bryant was something short of Jordanesque.
In fairness, Bryant wasn't the only guy hurting this week. Utah's Carlos Boozer has been struggling with a bad back of his own. Deron Williams has been buffeted like a pinata since Day One of the playoffs. Mehmet Okur has a bad Achilles. Various injuries have sidelined and slowed Laker players, too.
But when you're the MVP, your problems are always bigger. Your colds become the flu, your headaches become migraines, your bruises become contusions. Thus, Bryant showed up for warm-ups and promptly made eight straight perimeter shots. Didn't look like he was
hurting in any way. Same with his first shot of game game, a 3-pointer from the elbow. Perfect. Next shot, dead-on fade. Perfect, as well.
Injury? To what, his ego?
That's not to say Bryant was great. While he was busy building a case for yet another run of "Kobe Rocks" articles, his back pain seemed to be worse on the other end of the court. Ronnie Brewer, whom Bryant was supposed to be guarding, got three fast dunks and actually outscored Bryant 10-9 in the first period.
Though the Lakers led by as many as 12, the Jazz weren't about to be cowed. They tied the score at 69 and tied it several times again. Bryant was there in the background. An assist there, a free throw there. Down the stretch, he mostly passed off.
Not what the TV people had hoped, but enough.
It wasn't a perfect story, but it often isn't.Still, it had the ending the Lakers wanted most.