SALT LAKE CITY -- It was as if Kobe Bryant was making up for lost time, shooting himself back into the conversation before the first commercial break.
WEST FIRST ROUND
Los Angeles 3, Utah 1
Game 5: Mon., 10:30 ET, at LAL
Denver 2, New Orleans 1
Dallas 3, San Antonio 1
Houston 2, Portland 1
EAST FIRST ROUND
Cleveland 3, Detroit 0
Miami 2, Atlanta
Philadelphia 2, Orlando 1
He was a late arrival to the playoff party, at risk of becoming an afterthought. While LeBron James kept reminding us why he's headed toward a handshake and MVP trophy show with David Stern, Dwyane Wade caught fire in Atlanta and Chauncey Billups tore up the Hornets, Bryant went from ordinary in the first two games against the Utah Jazz to plain bad in Game 3, a 5-for-24 shooting performance that culminated in a missed 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
For the record, Kobe missed his last-minute 3-point shot in Game 4 as well. Only it didn't matter at all this time. The Lakers already had this game in hand and with it, a 3-1 lead in the series. And Bryant was the one who started the fire. He led all scorers with 38 points and for much of the game kept pace with the combined point total of Utah stars Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. If he hasn't been the same Kobe the Closer lately, he auditioned for a new role in Game 4: the initiator.
The story had been the same through the first three games. Kobe was usually the last to shoot, let alone score.
"I had been sitting back," Bryant said. "Maybe a little bit too much."
So he rewrote the script and gave himself a more prominent place. After more than 3,700 playoff points, you get those privileges. (Ari Gold from "Entourage" wishes he had juice like that.)
Bryant came out firing. He posted up more often instead of trying to do everything off the dribble from the perimeter. He scored the Lakers' first 11 points and 13 of their first 15, hitting 6 of 8 shots in the first quarter.
"You could just see he came out on a mission tonight," Williams said.
But the rest of the Lakers went 2-for-10, and Utah led 25-20 after the first quarter.
The turning point actually came when Kobe was on the bench at the start of the second quarter and the Lakers fielded a lineup of Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton and starters Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. The reserve players hit three consecutive 3-pointers to take the Lakers from a seven-point deficit to a two-point lead.
In the third quarter, Bryant "continued the onslaught," as Lakers coach Phil Jackson put it, knocking down 4 of 5 shots, scoring 10 points, drawing double-teams that left the Lakers' guards open and letting them toss in a couple of daggers to the Jazz. The Lakers led by 19 when the final quarter began and cruised to a 108-94 victory.
A subplot to Bryant's return to stardom was Andrew Bynum's banishment to bit player. He played only seven minutes in Game 3 because of early foul trouble. Odom took Bynum's place in the starting lineup for Game 4, ostensibly because Jackson wanted a defender with better range to counter the return of Utah's Mehmet Okur.
But Okur, who had missed the first three games of the series with a hamstring injury, was ineffective and spent most of the first half on the bench. So did Bynum. By the time he came back in the fourth quarter, the outcome was already decided.
Jackson said he was going with "my intuition" and said Utah's small lineups with Boozer at center and Matt Harpring at power forward conspired to keep Bynum on the bench.
"I know he's unhappy with it," Jackson said. "But that's what he was asked to do tonight."
Maybe Bynum will factor into the next series, when the Lakers will face either Houston's Yao Ming or Portland's big man tandem of Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden. Regardless of whom the Lakers match up against, you can expect to see more of this Game 4 version of Bryant.
"I'm going to still be aggressive," he said. "Because I don't want to lose that feature in our offense. I think we let teams off the hook by me being so passive."
It was worth wondering whether he still could summon his game on demand. So far in the first round, the playoffs haven't been stellar for Bryant and some of the other big names from the draft classes of 1996-97. Kevin Garnett missed the first playoff games of his career, Allen Iverson was last seen at a downtown Detroit casino and Tim Duncan turned in his worst playoff game. Bryant was forced to admit he was "horrible" in Game 3.
Now he's back in the star category. Feel free to keep running those black-and-white commercials with the piano music.
The lesson, as elucidated by Jazz coach Jerry Sloan: "Don't ever think that a player of Kobe Bryant's ability will not fight back."
It took a while, but Kobe Bryant is a part of the 2009 playoffs.
DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki took a whopping total of nine shots and still hasn't reacquainted himself with the feeling of splashing home a 3-pointer in the playoffs.
Jason Terry took possession of the NBA's Sixth Man Award trophy in a pregame ceremony and commemorated the occasion with the longest shooting drought anyone can remember for Nowitzki's normally locked-in sidekick, somehow clanking his final 13 shots in a row.
And if you take note of two other pertinent variables -- Tony Parker uncorked a ridiculous 43 points, and Joe Crawford couldn't referee this game because he worked the last game here -- you realize the conclusion from all of the above was inevitable: Tim Duncan must have enjoyed a reasonably happy birthday.
"What can you say?" Duncan said as he sat alone at his locker, looking more dazed by the way Game 4 of this slipping-away series unfolded than he was when his San Antonio Spurs were completely disassembled in Game 3.
That's because seemingly simple math was a myth on the afternoon Duncan turned 33. Neither the combined brilliance of the Spurs' little-and-big tag team nor the ongoing success of their ambitious defensive blueprint could prevent the Dallas Mavericks from claiming a 99-90 triumph that shoved the Spurs to the brink of elimination and rendered Duncan merely the second-most influential Wake Forest alumnus on the floor.
The Spurs' trusty Timmy rebounded from the worst statistical performance of his playoff life and a rising panic about what he has left in his legs with a tidy 25 points, 10 boards and seven assists Saturday -- only for Josh Howard to trump him with 14 points in a series-changing third quarter and 28 overall. So San Antonio will not be taking a 2-2 score line back home for Tuesday's Game 5, largely because the Mavs had Howard, Jason Kidd, Antoine Wright and even Ryan Hollins to prop up Nowitzki and Terry.
Whereas Duncan and Parker, if you're looking for more storytelling numbers, were basically playing 2-on-5.
The eight other Spurs who played produced a mere six baskets and 22 points, leaving the visitors exposed when Parker finally began to fade in the fourth quarter. "He was all-out gassed," Duncan said.
"We've done a great job of executing our game plan," Duncan said. "We've taken Jason and Dirk, and we've been able to limit what they've been able to do, and we're still in a 3-1 hole. So ...
There was no need to finish the thought. Duncan understandably doesn't want to talk about what's coming, but the reality is that the Spurs -- who were having enough trouble playing through the unspoken realization that they were never going to win a championship with Manu Ginobili in street clothes -- surely see they don't even have enough minus the injured Ginobili to prevent the maiden first-round exit of Duncan's career when he has played.
The Spurs were knocked out in Round 1 by Kidd's Phoenix Suns in 2000, but Duncan was injured in that series. In the 10 previous first-round matchups of the Duncan era, the Spurs went 10-0.
Yet they've been pulverized by the limitations of the Parker-Duncan duo when those two have received so little help, Howard's sudden turnaround and the late-season cultivation of a tangible supporting cast for Nowitzki, Kidd and Terry. Mavs owner Mark Cuban couldn't contain his giddiness after seeing the rarely used Hollins summoned by TNT for an on-the-court interview after the win, pausing briefly as he skipped to his bunker suite at American Airlines Center to say, "We have a bench now."
For seemingly more than half the season, Terry was the Mavs' bench. In the playoffs, J.J. Barea has played his way into a starting spot and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle can be reasonably certain he'll get something useful from one or two of the following: Brandon Bass, James Singleton, Wright and perhaps Hollins. Erick Dampier picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter, setting up the uber-athletic but thoroughly untested Hollins to grab eight rebounds in 19 minutes, block three shots and collect his first playoff technical foul for taunting Duncan after a ferocious follow slam over TD with 4 minutes, 20 seconds to play that Terry deemed "one of the best dunks I've ever seen in the playoffs."
Then there's Howard, who's finally supplying the sort of all-around energy and productivity the Mavs have been waiting for all season. The team believes this core group could still achieve something significant when Howard delivers.
Howard insists that stubborn wrist and ankle injuries -- as opposed to the spiral of off-the-court issues that so damaged his reputation last season -- are the only reasons we haven't seen a consistent solid performance. What can't be disputed is that his contributions have swung Game 1 and Game 4, given the Spurs' resolve to double-team Nowitzki almost every time he touches the ball and make sure someone extra is always jumping out at Terry every time he turns a corner.
"Josh Howard is the key to this whole thing," Terry said. "If he continues to have big games, we like our chances."
That's especially true when Howard, who historically does the bulk of his scoring early in games, gets to the line 13 times (sinking 11) and scores freely in the third quarter, as we've seen in two of Dallas' three wins in this series. Getting to the line 39 times as a team, Carlisle added, basically offset the Mavs' 38.4 percent shooting from the floor.
Nor did it hurt that Nowitzki found ways to hurt the Spurs without his jumper. He didn't even attempt a 3-pointer in this one, after going 0-for-7 in the first three games. He chastised himself afterward for not trying to force his way through at least a few double-teams to see whether he could get to the free-throw line. But Nowitzki pulled in 13 rebounds, rumbled for a game-sealing layup shortly after the Spurs had pulled to within 93-90, took a rare charge in crunch time and, according to Cuban, gave an even rarer locker-room pep talk to help Dallas recover after surrendering 17 of the final 21 points in the second quarter to throw away an early nine-point lead.
"They're leaving [people open] on the weak side," Nowitzki said, marveling at the depth of San Antonio's commitment to swarm him. "They're leaving [people open] under the basket. I've never seen a defense like this. So I've got to adjust."
Parker, meanwhile, had a stunning 31 points by halftime, and Duncan insists that his seven missed free throws hurt far worse than the creaky knees you've been reading so much about. Yet there appears to be little hope of avoiding an exit that would be shock-to-the-system early for a franchise that has won four championships since 1999.
"I feel as good as I've felt all year but we're down 3-1," Duncan said.
What can you say?
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Kobe Bryant, Lakers: When a high-volume shooter hits a high volume of shots, look out. Bryant sank 16 of 24 shots en route to 38 points and an impressive road win in Utah.
Matt Bonner, Spurs: The Granite State's foremost baller accepts this award on behalf of all Spurs without the initials TD or TP who combined to shoot 6-for-28 in the loss to Dallas.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"They have a lot more weapons than us."
-- Spurs guard Tony Parker on the Mavs
(Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Heat guard Dwyane Wade rises to reject Hawks swat king Josh Smith during the Heat's Game 3 win in Miami.
ESPN The Magazine
NEW ORLEANS -- It remains to be seen whether luring James Posey from the Celtics with a four-year, $25 million deal will prove to be a worthwhile gambit for the Hornets. But Posey demonstrated Saturday exactly why a team would even consider rolling such expensive dice on a 32-year-old journeyman small forward.
The Hornets were well on their way to a third blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets when "Super Posey," as Nuggets coach George Karl called him, delivered 10 points in a 4½ -minute stretch at the end of the first quarter, nearly erasing a 14-point deficit all by himself.
That appeared to be all the Hornets would get from him. Posey landed awkwardly at the end of the period and went to the locker room with what was diagnosed as a sprained right knee. He returned several minutes into the second quarter, grimacing as he jogged back to the bench, to tell coach Byron Scott he could go.
Although he couldn't push off his right knee laterally the rest of the game and scored only three more points, he finished one rebound short of a double-double in 23 minutes. The biggest of his rebounds was the last, when he snared the ball in a crowd under the basket after a missed Carmelo Anthony jumper.
Sporting a Band-Aid on his right cheekbone, the wound underneath a souvenir of that last rebound, he feigned ignorance when it came to his knee.
"I don't know where you got that," he said, smiling coyly when asked about the first-quarter injury. "Who told you that? I just took a bathroom break."
His teammates, though, knew he had gutted one out -- and that they probably wouldn't have won if he hadn't.
"Not surprising to me, knowing his personality," Hornets guard Antonio Daniels said. "He's a warrior in every sense of the word."
ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher served as ESPN's sideline reporter for Game 3.
Dwyane Wade taught us as much back in 2006, when he carried a relatively inferior Miami Heat team to an NBA championship almost single-handedly. And by the looks of things, he's about to do it again.
At least through the first round.
Courtesy of a 16-2 explosion to end the first half, a 23-7 run in a seven-minute fourth-quarter spurt, a mind-numbingly pathetic display of offensive production by Atlanta and the latest in a laundry list of surreal performances from Wade, the Heat steamrolled to a 107-78 rout of the Hawks at American Airlines Arena on Saturday night.
One can easily engage in the gratuitous explanation of why this series is not over, lamenting the absence of Hawks forward Marvin Williams (wrist injury), the quality of Wade's supporting cast and the reality that the Heat are still just one loss away from giving home-court advantage right back to the Hawks. But from the looks of things, we know better. Don't we?
"Nah, not yet," said Wade, who dropped 29 points on 10-of-21 shooting, doing whatever he wanted all night long. "We started this series focused on a one-game-at-a-time approach, and that's what we'll continue to do."
Why not, when it works so well?
It's bad enough Wade scored when he wanted, assisted when he needed and demoralized the Hawks whenever they hinted at a comeback, but he made sure he had help.
Heat center Jermaine O'Neal showed up and registered 22 points and 10 rebounds. Udonis Haslem recorded 12 points and 13 rebounds. The Heat outrebounded the Hawks 48-35. They hit all 19 of their free throws, and connected on 52 percent (12-of-23) of their shots from beyond the arc.
"We held serve," Wade said.
To read Smith's entire column, click here.
It appears, still, that Pistons big man Rasheed Wallace is not interested in making winning plays. Too often he stands and watches the action on defense, giving up layups and other easy shots. And on offense, he's happy to just hang back and wait for a shot that only rarely will come (he made his only 3 in Game 3), as the Cavs won't let him play that catch-and-shoot game. A Wallace dedicated to mixing it up inside could make a huge difference for Detroit.
To read David Thorpe's entire Game 4 preview, click here.