Calm Kobe takes spot with greats

Thursday, June 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Any more doubts about the identity of the New Michael?

Kobe Bryant, playing on a sprained left ankle, took over in overtime Wednesday night, driving the Lakers to within one victory of the NBA title with a memorable Game 4 right out of the Jordan scrapbook. It certainly looked familiar to Indiana's Pacers, who'd been through this more times than they'd like to remember during His Airness' reign.

In overtime, pulses pounding and pressure mounting, Bryant was the coolest person in Conseco Fieldhouse. He hit a short jumper, then a pair of deep ones just inside the three-point arc, looking very much like His Airness reborn inside No. 8 in purple.

Then came suitable-for-framing game-winner with 5.9 seconds left, a two-hand reverse rebound hoop on a missed shot by Brian Shaw.

When Reggie Miller's three-point bomb came up a few inches short, Conseco fell deathly silent, Indiana having fallen, 120-118, in one of the most thrilling games in recent Finals history.

"This was the game I've been dreaming about, to be honest about it," Bryant said. "I dream about hitting the game-winning shot top of the key.

"These are the type of games I dream about every day."

What Kobe -- 28 points, five assists, four rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal -- gave the world was a performance truly Jordanesque in scope and style. It was a 47-minute epic by a man who hardly could walk two days earlier and had missed all of Game 3 and all but nine minutes of Game 2 after rolling the ankle on the foot of Jalen Rose.

"When Shaq went out, my thought was this game became a lot more interesting than it was a few seconds ago," Bryant said. "It was a bigger challenge for us, because we're used to Shaq being out there. The crowd got into it. There were moments we'd score, they'd come back and score, we'd score . . . you couldn't get mad. It was fun. This was the type of game you watched growing up, the ultimate in the NBA Finals."

The other half of the Lakers' celebrated "Combo," MVP Shaquille O'Neal, was an overpowering inside force before fouling out early in the overtime with 36 points and 21 rebounds.

That meant one thing: It was Kobe time. The wunderkind was up to the challenge, producing eight of his team's 16 in the final five minutes. Kobe fell one shy of the Finals' record for points in an overtime shared by John Havlicek, Danny Ainge and Bill Laimbeer.

"I'm just glad I'm part of this legendary one-two punch," O'Neal said. "We've always had that big-brother, little-brother relationship. Kobe has been there all playoffs, and he was there tonight."

Kobe and Shaq met on the court immediately after this stunning victory in a deep embrace. They knew this was the product of inspiration and perspiration, and that there was no less heart on display by Indiana's Pacers. The only difference was Miller's three-pointer at the buzzer. It was all that separated these two teams from being dead even.

"Right now, we're definitely behind the eight-ball," Miller said. "We've got a little bit of a pulse left, so we've gotta go after it on Friday.

"Kobe's probably at his best when he's getting in the lane creating. He had to settle for some tough shots. When he makes those, you've gotta give him credit."

There were other Lakers who distinguished themselves down the stretch, notably Robert Horry, but this was Kobe's show.

"I have a tremendous amount of confidence in my teammates," Shaq said. "This is what great teams are all about. Kobe had a fabulous game."

Almost everything Kobe sent toward the hoop in overtime was money. He was 4 for 5 from the field, and he also made a big blocked shot on an inside move by Austin Croshere.

"There ain't nothin' wrong with that man's ankle," a disbelieving Sam Perkins said. It was the former Laker's three-pointer that forced the overtime. The Pacers had a shot to win in regulation, but Shaq flew out and disturbed Travis Best's 15-foot jumper, causing an airball.

When Shaq left with 2:33 left in overtime, Lakers coach Phil Jackson spread the floor to take full advantage of Bryant's skills.

"They were putting him in pick-and-rolls, isolating him, and he made key shots," said Larry Bird, the best coach in the state of Indiana. "We just couldn't stop him at that time.

"I knew they were a very dominant team and felt we had a shot tonight. We just didn't execute, and they broke us down. Kobe did a great job going one-on-one and making plays for them."

After the MVP fouled out, he went to Kobe for encouragement.

"He said, `Don't worry about it; I'm feelin' it,' " Shaq said. "That's what a one-two punch does for you. Kobe's the hero tonight."

"I was just waiting for moments in the game to attack," Kobe said. "Third quarter, I pushed it . . . and when Shaq went out, I pushed it. Right now, it (the ankle) is hurting. Thankfully I'm 21."

"This gives me more confidence, but more importantly, it gives my teammates more confidence in me."

Bryant called into the Jordan conversation other greats of his youth, including the Indiana coach who had his team so ready to play.

"Kobe was great, carried us in that period of time," Jackson said. "We had to go to some screen-roll with Shaq and Kobe, and they combined very well on it, particularly at the end of the game. Kobe smelled it at the end of the game, his opportunity when Shaq was out."

O'Neal was a tower of power throughout, dominating the boards and scoring with bodies draped all over him.

Bryant, feeling his way early on, played under great control for a 21-year-old kid coming off an injury. He didn't try to take over until it was necessary.

"I thought he was tentative early in the game but grew confident in his game as it went on," Jackson said.

Jordan never was better under pressure. Let's face it, Jellybean Joe Bryant's kid is the real deal -- the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.