Los Angeles looks to make Magic vanish
By Antonio Gonzalez
ORLANDO, Fla. ó Kobe Bryant has changed his look.
Gone is the teeth-baring, nose-flaring, eyes-on-the-prize scowl that the Los Angeles Lakers star showed again and again in Game 1 of the NBA finals. The intensity diminished after Game 2, his expression morphing into one of relief and sheer luck.
A botched layup by Magic rookie Courtney Lee is perhaps the biggest reason why these finals are not tied and why Bryant isn’t smiling even with his team up 2-0. That level of seriousness might be cause for Orlando to grimace.
The Magic nearly returned from Los Angeles with the best-of-seven series tied. Instead, Orlando is down 2-0, and Bryant has a promise for Game 3 tonight.
“We’re about to kick it up,” he said. “You’d better believe it. We’re close. You see what I’m saying? This is the finals. We’re going to be ready to go.”
For all the bravado, the Lakers can be careless, a team with holes and an inability to finish off an opponent. They let Houston extend a series despite the absence of Yao Ming. Denver outmuscled and outhustled a Lakers team that seemed to lose its enthusiasm until Game 6 of the conference finals.
Los Angeles believes those days are over.
“We’re playing tougher,” forward Pau Gasol said. “We understand what it takes to go get the championship.”
This is a franchise closing in on its 15th title. It is facing Magic team still searching for its first finals victory. Bryants insists this is no time to get comfortable.
“What’s there to be happy about?” he asked. “The job’s not finished.”
The Magic has had its shots ó one in particular ó to change the series.
Lee missed a wide-open, alley-oop layup that would have won Game 2 at the fourth-quarter buzzer Sunday night. It was another chapter in a long history of Magic misery, one that now has Orlando 0-6 in finals games.
Call it the “alley-oops.” This mistake, however, might hurt the most.
Orlando has been able to come back from seemingly every heartbreak this season ó injuries, four last-second losses in the playoffs and series deficits in two rounds. But this could be too tough a challenge. Only three teams have won a title after losing the first two games in the finals, most recently Miami over Dallas in 2006.
“We’ve just got to go home and take care of business,” Magic center Dwight Howard said. “The Lakers did a good job of protecting their home, and now it’s our turn to do the same thing. We’ve been in some tough situations. We’ve just got to fight our way out.”