By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted May 28 2009 6:56PM
LOS ANGELES -- It was halftime and Luke Walton had as many shot attempts as Kobe Bryant while Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom all had twice as much as the Mamba.
The last time we saw something like this in a playoff game was 2006, when the Lakers were playing a Game 7 against Phoenix and Kobe was keeping his guns in their holsters, hoisting up three shot attempts in the second half of an embarrassing 31-point blowout.
It was the season he scored 81 in a single game and averaged 35. But when it came down to the most crucial game of the season, Bryant dialed his game down to mute.
Kobe called his teammates "nervous" that day and conspiracy theorists whispered that Bryant turned off the jets in the second half to show just how bad his team was if he didn't go out there gunning. They said he wanted to prove once and for all that the points he scored were a necessity to win, not an ego-feeding hobby.
Wednesday wasn't anything like that.
Los Angeles' 103-94 Game 5 victory in the Western Conference finals might have ended up being Bryant's finest masterpiece in the post-Shaquille O'Neal era. Not because he finished with 22 points and eight assists, but because he made sure his teammates' brush strokes were all over the final product. (Note: Watch a replay of Game 5 on NBA TV on Thursday, May 28 at noon ET.)
"I just had to quarterback it a little bit," Bryant said. "They cocked their whole defense to me. I tried to beat them with my passing a little bit." Bryant always had the quarterbacking skill in him, he'd just used to opt for the QB keeper rather than trust his receivers. In Game 5, he spread the field.
In the first half, Bryant wasn't shooting because Bynum was playing like a man with two healthy knees, throwing down two dunks in the first quarter (one off a Bryant feed) to help erase the Nuggets' early six-point lead.
He wasn't shooting because he was watching Fisher break out of his month-long slump. He wasn't shooting because Gasol was getting going in the post.
And he wasn't shooting because he was setting the table on the final play of the half for Sasha Vujacic by breaking down the defense and kicking it out to the struggling Slovenian for a game-tying 3-pointer as the clock expired.
In the second half, he wasn't shooting because he was finding Shannon Brown for a backdoor layup. Brown's vicious flush on Chris Andersen and his shot-clock beating jumper during the Lakers' run in the last five minutes of the third and the first four minutes of the fourth helped turn a seven-point hole into an 11-point bulge.
He wasn't shooting because Denver was aggressively trapping him as soon as he passed halfcourt and he was getting the ball out of his hands to let his teammates make plays.
"That's what we really asked of him," coach Phil Jackson said. "He was creating the offensive opportunities by generating a double team in a screen-roll with Pau and moving the ball ahead."
And Bryant kept his finger off the trigger with a little more than one minute remaining and the Lakers' lead cut to five. With just about the same time left in Game 3, he pulled up for three over J.R. Smith to seal the win. This time, he snuck the ball into Odom for an and-one layup that wrapped it up.
"This was one of our best games that we played this year as far as a team effort, as far as a complete effort from everyone," Odom said after a gutty 19-point, 14-rebound, four-block night playing with an ailing lower back that had him sweating so profusely that he took to sopping the sweat off his brow with his shorts rather than his already soaked jersey.
"This Lakers group is really connected," Jackson said.
So connected that after the game, Brown said Bryant gave him his trust after his first day of practice together. Remember, Brown joined the team midseason as an unproven vagabond -- latching onto his third team in three years after a stint in the D-League.
Did Bryant ever give Smush Parker his trust after playing with him for a full season?
"It's amazing what kind of team we can be when we play as a team -- when each guy contributes and does what he's supposed to do and what he can do," Brown said. "It's amazing how far we can go."
The media has framed Bryant's season this year in terms of individual accolades. First there was the MVP debate. Then it was about the possibility of how an L.A. championship would be his fourth ring, but more importantly his first one without Hall of Fame teammate Shaquille O'Neal.
It seems that every other story written during the Playoffs has been about the dream Finals matchup pitting Kobe vs. LeBron. Person vs. Person (err, or Puppet vs. Puppet). Not team vs. team.
When the Cavaliers fell down 3-1 to the Magic on Tuesday, James said: "We are looking forward to the challenge ... I know I am. I'm up for the challenge, and I think my play, my leadership has spoke for that."
James changed from "we" to "I" with his back against the wall.
Bryant is just one win away from a return trip to The Finals because he did just the opposite.
NBA.com's Dave McMenamin will be covering the Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Nuggets. If you have a question or comment for him, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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