LOS ANGELES With the same purpose as one of his in-your-face jumpers, Kobe Bryant leaned into the microphone.
He promised more NBA finals games to come.
"The series ain't over," he said. "It's far from over."
Faced with long odds, Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers returned to the practice floor Saturday for the first time since Game 4, when the Boston Celtics stormed back from a 24-point deficit to win and take a 3-1 lead in this reborn rivalry.
The Lakers have run out of time and tomorrows. It's either win Game 5 today or pack away the sneakers for summer.
No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals, and even if the Lakers can stave off elimination and win at Staples Center, they'll have to play Games 6 and 7 in Boston, where the Celtics are 12-1 this postseason. Since the league switched to the much-debated 2-3-2 format in 1985, no team has won the last two games on the road.
Their climb is a steep one, and if the Lakers have any chance of mounting a comeback, Bryant, the league's MVP and the game's most transcendent player, most criticized personality and most unstoppable force, must be the one to lead them.
If he's feeling any pressure, Bryant isn't showing it.
The Black Mamba is as cold-blooded as ever.
Bryant was relaxed and jovial during a news conference at the club's practice facility in El Segundo. The three-time champion, whose every gesture and facial expression made toward teammates gets overanalyzed, cracked jokes during a 10-minute session with the media.
Bryant insists the Lakers have moved on since their Game 4 collapse. There's no time to dwell on what happened, all that counts now is what happens next.
"We've got to take care of business on Sunday," said Bryant, who spent much of the past two days relaxing at home with his family. "So what are we going to do? How am I going to get my teammates in the right frame of mind, make sure they're energetic, and that's what it's been all about."
Boston is one win from its 17th NBA title and first in 22 years, but the Celtics are wary of Bryant. They've done a decent job of containing him through four games his only breakout was a 36-point performance in Game 3 but they know Bryant can single-handedly beat them if they're not careful.
"We're up 3-1 and we know we have a lot of basketball to play because Kobe is on that team," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He's the scariest player in the NBA in a lot of ways, so you're fearful of him all the time. A respectful fear."
Bryant didn't score from the field in the first half of Game 4, which the Lakers led by 18 at halftime and by 20 with 6 minutes to go in the third quarter. In the second half, Paul Pierce asked to guard Bryant, a defensive switch that allowed Ray Allen to get his offense going and have his best game of the series.
Pierce's size seemed to bother Bryant, and with none of the other Lakers able to carry the scoring load, Bryant tried to take over down the stretch but couldn't.
"I reached into the hat and couldn't pull the rabbit out," he said.
Allen will likely start on Bryant in Game 5, but Rivers plans to throw different defensive looks at the superstar.
"One guy will not guard Kobe Bryant," he said. "It's just too hard. It's too much work, and it takes all the energy out of that one guy."
Rivers respects Bryant, the player. He respects Bryant, the person, too.
But for all the 29-year-old's brilliance, his 10 All-Star game appearances, two scoring titles and ability to do things on the court that others can only dream of, Bryant can't seem to win over his critics. He hasn't helped his image by demanding to be traded last summer, and there is a segment of fans who have never warmed up to him following his arrest five years ago in Colorado on rape charges.
And then there's his behavior on the court. Bryant is tough on his teammates, some say too tough. If one of the Lakers doesn't perform up to Bryant's expectations, he'll let them know about it with a few well-chosen words, a what-was-that? shoulder shrug or glare.
He's demanding and driven, not unlike Michael Jordan, the player with whom Bryant is so often fairly or unfairly compared.
One man has a unique perspective on the two icons. Phil Jackson coached them both.
The Lakers' head honcho, who has won nine NBA titles, said it takes some thick skin to be able to handle a teammate constantly pushing you to do better. But he has no problem with Bryant's penchant to require perfection from those around him.
"That's an energy that a lot of players can't stand up to, but we try to find players that can," he said. "It's very challenging and I think it's very aggressive and I think it's good. Having lived with it for a period of time with two different types of players, I can endorse it."
Part of the Lakers' success, Bryant feels, is that they are brutally honest with each other. He believes his teammates can handle his heat, and don't take his prodding personally.
"Our relationship is great," he said. "I think people pay attention to it a lot more than you do when you lose than when you win. When you win it's great leadership. When you lose, it's ... you're a tyrant. You've got to take it and roll with it."
Derek Fisher was Bryant's teammate for eight seasons before spending two with Golden State and one with Utah. He re-signed with Los Angeles as a free agent last summer. On the eve of what could be the Lakers' final game of 2008, Fisher was asked if Bryant was a better teammate than before he left.
"Wow," Fisher said, laughing. "Sounds like everybody is getting their what-happens-if-we-lose stories together, huh? A lot of Kobe questions."
In Fisher's eyes, Bryant has grown into a committed team leader and credits his off-the-floor maturity as a father as the primary reason.
"I just think that he's gotten older, he's in the 30 club almost now," Fisher said. "I just think he has a great understanding of who he is and what it takes to be the best."
And starting with Game 5, the Lakers need Bryant to be better than ever.