It never should have come to that. But it did. Bryant gets props for making another big game winner, hitting a 16-foot fadeaway to give the Los Angeles Lakers a 90-89 victory over the struggling Celtics on Sunday. But when you carefully construct an 11-point lead with 9:17 left, and then make only two baskets the rest of the way, give up a third-chance dunk to Shannon Brown and commit five turnovers in the final eight minutes, you pretty much deserve what you get.
And the Celtics got beat.
They did a lot of good things. Rajon Rondo was terrific, the Celtics' defense looked a lot better, Kevin Garnett is slowly getting healthier and Tony Allen gave them some excellent minutes. But the end result was a third straight loss, marking the third time this season they've dropped three in a row.
Yes, referee Derek Richardson made a ridiculous call with 27.5 seconds left, whistling Paul Pierce for an offensive foul after a mild push-off and a Stanislavski reaction from Ron Artest. "At that point, [the foul] has to be unbelievable [to be called],'' coach Doc Rivers said. Added Pierce, "I thought I made a great move."
They're both right. Kobe does the same thing. "I don't think Paul did anything different than Kobe did all night,'' Ray Allen said. It's an NBA article of faith that stars almost never get called for that in the final 30 seconds of a hotly contested game.
Yes, ref Bennett Salvatore made another puzzler with 2:23 left, calling Rondo for traveling. All Rondo did was appear to fake a pass with no one near him.
Those were two debatable calls, but two indisputable turnovers. Those were two of the five turnovers the Celtics made over the final eight minutes. That's three more turnovers than baskets in that same amount of time -- and you are not going to win many games with that kind of math.
"If we don't make the mistakes that we made to let them back into the game, then we won't have to worry about a referee's call,'' Ray Allen said.
Turnovers. Offensive rebounds. That's what decides a lot of close games and that's what decided the first meeting between these two teams. As Lakers coach Phil Jackson put it, "The turnovers. The extra possessions. That was the key for us."
While the Celtics' overall defensive numbers have been pretty solid all season, they are making it very hard on themselves in two revealing areas. They continue to turn the ball over at a disturbing rate and they continue to have trouble on the glass.
The Celtics had 18 giveaways Sunday -- they average 15.6 a game -- which the Lakers converted into 23 points. They had three biggies in the final 5:39, the two controversial calls and an inexcusable (and really inexplicable) lefty fling pass from Rondo that never had a chance to connect to Pierce.
They also have been a mystifyingly lousy rebounding team all season. They did outrebound the Lakers Sunday, but not in the fourth quarter, and in a close game, you simply can't let Brown in for a dunk after two L.A. misfires. That came 79 seconds after Rondo's errant throwaway with the Celtics nursing a four-point lead.
The Celtics rank 25th in the NBA in rebounding (they're dead last in offensive rebounding) and here's the Fab Five who are worse: Indiana, New Jersey, Phoenix, New York and Golden State. Only five teams in the league average more turnovers than the Celtics: Golden State, Indiana, Minnesota, Charlotte and Sacramento.
That is not company you want to be keeping if you've got intentions of playing into May and June. Clearly, and justifiably, the Celtics have every intention of doing just that. But how far they go may in large part depend on their being able to clean up the little things, so as not to put themselves in the position they found themselves in Sunday.
Peter May is a contributor to ESPN.com.