L.A. Lakers avoid elimination at home, head to Boston for Game 6

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Contributor's notes: It's not easy being Kobe

“There can only be one,” reads the tagline of the NBA’s 2008 playoff marketing campaign, splitting the faces of top players to emphasize that no one gets a participation award. Yet, the Los Angeles Lakers Game 5, 103-98 victory over the Boston Celtics, featured a different kind of split — the split personality of Kobe Bryant.

Since Shaquille O’Neal departed following the 2004 season, Bryant’s dominant personality on the court and in the media was of an immensely (and perhaps singularly) talented player, whose own ego was his opponent’s best defense. Though Bryant piled on the points, the best the heir-apparent to Michael Jordan could do in the playoffs was a first round exit. The only titles Bryant won without O’Neal were “selfish” and “temperamental.”

Yet, this year is different, right? Bryant’s “get me guys to play with or trade me” threats paid off and the mid-season acquisition of seven-foot Pau Gasol enhanced the effectiveness of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. Thus, Bryant steered his ragtag supporting cast of Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Gasol, and company to the best record in the West, and a trip to the NBA Finals. He even picked up personal hardware along the way, snagging his first NBA Most Valuable Player award.

His evolution appeared so complete that pundits overwhelmingly tapped the Lakers to takedown the Celtics, even in the face of Boston’s own triangle offense (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen).

Even when the Celtics took a 2-0 series lead, Kobe-lovers pointed to his decision to pass instead of forcing a fade-away jumper late in Game 2 as evidence of his new maturity. The fact that he trusted his teammates enough to let them not only touch the basketball but also shoot it at a critical juncture in the NBA finals reflected the growth the media (and quite possibly his own locker room) yearned for. His teammate missed and the Lakers comeback stalled, but it appeared Bryant might shed “his arrogance-ness.” Such moments transformed Michael Jordan from the game’s greatest player into the greatest ever. Did that decision mean Bryant was on his way?

Not so fast. It appears that Bryant’s ascendance is a bit premature and not just because of the pesky fact that Jordan owns six rings, five MVP’s and six NBA Finals MVP’s.

In Game 5, the Lakers jumped out to a 39-22 first-quarter lead, with Bryant scoring 15 and consistently creating opportunities for Gasol and Odom in the post. But as the game progressed, the go-to guy did not want to be gone-to. Bryant suddenly became a kindergarten teacher’s dream student, sharing the basketball with everyone.

While highlight reels and Lakers fans will point to Bryant’s big steal and subsequent dunk to give the Lakers a 99-95 lead with 40 seconds left as evidence of Bryant’s skill and leadership, the Game 5 victory was ugly. While it might be hard for Tinseltown to take, it was more of a Celtics loss than a Lakers win.

Of course, a win is all L.A. needed to stay alive and send the series back to Boston for Tuesday’s Game 6.

And Bryant might just prove me wrong. It would be very Jordan-esque to pull off the never-been-done 3-1 Finals comeback — and on the road no less.

But, for now, if “there can only be one,” I want Paul Pierce. After an NBA ring, a lot of others will too.

— Takeaway Contributor Maggie Haskins