Kobe Bryant knows better. So do Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, along with the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, they all failed miserably Tuesday night at Amway Arena beyond what they didn't do on the court against the Orlando Magic during Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
Off the court, they kept trying to convince us in the land of Disney World that Mickey Mouse is Goofy in disguise, that dreams really don't come true and that Kobe is only human, and Kobe isn't allowed to be. That is, not if he wishes to join the league's elite of all-time instead of just the elite of this time.
He knows it.
His teammates know it, too.
We all know this universally crowned "best closer in the game" can't become less than Michael, Magic or Larry down the stretch of any championship game to keep critics from rolling their eyes. Is that fair? Yep, because you have that elite of the elites, and then you have the level below that, where Kobe resides. He wants to rise higher, so consider: Shy of an injury or illness -- and none was reported for Bryant in this one, except for maybe a bruised ego -- the rumbling, stumbling, bumbling guy that we saw near the end of the Lakers' 108-104 meltdown was unacceptable.
Phil Jackson also knows this. He coached Michael to six world championships with the Chicago Bulls, and nobody ever accused Michael of possessing flesh and blood, especially when dribbling in June. Still, Jackson said of Bryant's inability on Tuesday night to make free throws, drill shots down the stretch and avoid a game-high four turnovers, including a killer one inside the final 30 seconds, "You know, we're all frail as humans. Sometimes not as much as others."
Talk to the hand, Phil. You know that when Michael, Magic and Larry saw blood in the water, they always evolved into Great Whites in sneakers during these situations -- well, almost always. Michael and his Bulls had their issues with Isiah's Bad Boys from Detroit, and when Larry's Boston Celtics and Magic's Lakers weren't losing to each other, they occasionally were losing to others.
Michael, Magic and Larry always recovered, though, and they always did so dramatically in their prime. Kobe is in his prime. That's why Kobe operating as the anti-Michael, Magic and Larry for a night is encouraging news for the Lakers, especially since he really does wish to join the elite of the elite. So you just know his bruised ego will heal in time for Game 4, and you just know he will play out of his mind on Thursday night to push the Lakers to a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series.
You just know it, because Bryant can't look any worse than he did on Tuesday night when it counted. With the Lakers needing every point they could muster inside the final two minutes, Bryant missed the fifth of his 10 foul shots for the game. He botched a three-point attempt from 26 feet and then another from 27 feet. In fact, he went from a sizzling first quarter with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the floor to missing 11 of his last 14 shot attempts. Mostly, he couldn't care less that he had open teammates, and when he tried to squeeze between a couple of Orlando defenders during the closing seconds, he had the ball stripped.
Thus the Kobe alibis by others.
"I've seen him hit shots when he's winded, sick with the flu, things like that, so it happens," said Odom, shrugging, with a little laugh. Gasol nodded in agreement across the way in the visitors' locker room. The same went for Trevor Ariza, adding of Kobe's shaky play in the second half, "We're not concerned with that."
Jackson even alluded to the "T" word, which is a convenient way of excusing what your most significant player didn't or couldn't do. Said Jackson, when asked if Bryant was tired, "Yeah. He'll say no."
To Bryant's credit, he did say no. He also said of his Game 3, "It was disappointing. I'm used to coming through in those situations. The team trusts me to come through in those situations, and it just didn't happen tonight."
It'll happen Thursday night. If Kobe wishes to join Michael, Magic and Larry without the hint of doubt, he hasn't a choice.