Bryant expected to come back stronger in Game 2

Jim Fenton

The Los Angeles Lakers' hopes of getting past the Boston Celtics and winning the NBA championship rest squarely on his shoulders.

Kobe Bryant, the league's reigning most valuable player, is well aware about the pressure situation he's in, and given the alternative of being on vacation right now, it is one he prefers.

"Well, I'd rather have the pressure of this moment,'' said Bryant Saturday afternoon, "as opposed to having the pressure of deciding which swim trunks I'm going to wear in Bora Bora -- the Gucci ones or the Yves St. Laurent ones. I'd much rather have this pressure.''

So it is for Bryant, the player quite capable of spoiling the Celtics' dream ending to their magnificent season in the NBA Finals.

Keeping Bryant as under control of possible will go a long way in the Celtics' quest for their first championship since 1986.

They were able to do so in Game 1 on Thursday night, limiting him to 9 of 26 shooting and six free-throw attempts, and they will bid to do the same in Game 2 tonight at the TD Banknorth Garden.

The Celtics and their smothering defense are matched up with the Lakers and their potent offense, which is powered by Bryant, who averaged 31.9 points on 51 percent shooting in the opening three rounds.

As Bryant goes, so go the Lakers, and the Celtics have been able to keep him in the mortal category in three meeting this season. Bryant has made just 24 of 72 shots against Boston's defense, averaging 24.6 points, below his season number of 28.3.

After being unable to get to the basket or consistently hit mid-range jumpers, Bryant is expected to be more aggressive in Game 2 against the Celtics, which are looking to take a 2-0 lead with the next three games in LA.

"Well, he's been an unstoppable force in this game,'' said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "He usually doesn't have two games in a row that are bad. He comes back and plays better. So we anticipate that's going to be a pattern.''

The Celtics started with Ray Allen guarding Bryant with James Posey and Paul Pierce taking turns as the game went on. Pierce is expected to play tonight despite injuring his right knee in the third quarter Thursday night, though how effective he will be remains a question.

As has been the case all season, the Celtics' defense was the key to their opening-game win as they ganged up and refused to let Bryant drive as often as he likes and kept him off balance.

"Defense helps you miss some (shots), makes some of those looks kind of long and distant at times,'' said Kevin Garnett. "I thought he had really good looks at the basket. I thought he made some tough shots.

"I thought team-wise, we did a good job of communicating and setting up our wall, as we put it, in trying to control him. We're anticipating him being a lot more aggressive. I thought we came out and were efficient from the giddy up.''

Bryant has seen every kind of defense imaginable throughout his career, especially since Shaquille O'Neal left the Lakers, and now it's a matter of figuring out how to be more effective against the Celtics.

Boston has used defense as its calling card through a 66-win regular season and three rounds of the playoffs, making life miserable for LeBron James for most of the second round series.

"They just want to contest shots,'' said Bryant. "If I go up and shoot, they just get a hand in the face. I've got to put the ball in the damn hole. That sucker just didn't want to stay down last game.

"They're not going to let me get to the paint from the top of the floor or from a wing screen and roll. I'll be looking for my teammates in those situations. (They) just make me a perimeter player in terms of being able to shoot the ball.

"The two games we played in the regular season, I shot the ball atrociously. In Game 1, I shot the ball bad, too. Hopefully, it just means I'm due. I would never be bashful (about shooting). You know that. I get those (shots) again, I'm foaming at the mouth. I want those looks again.''

The Enterprise