Even legendary Kobe falters at times

FRANK ZICARELLI , QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

No player sells more jerseys that bear his number than Kobe Bryant.

No visiting player is as popular as Bryant when his name gets introduced on the road.

Whether heís fading away along the baseline, getting in the lane by using his dribble or simply spotting up on the perimeter, Bryant will always find a way to make a basket.

Heís the NBAís pre-eminent closer, the one guy any team would want to have the ball in his hands when a play needs to be made to win a game.

But there are times when even the best come up short.

While Bryant remains a dominant figure and a major box office attraction, he isnít quite as explosive and seems less inclined to go completely off on any given night.

As the Lakers arrived into Toronto for their first and only visit, Bryant has been quick to criticize teammates and a team hoping to repeat as champions.

Bryantís legacy as one of the gameís greatest is no longer in doubt.

His image, both off and on the court, has been completely rehabilitated.

There really isnít anything left for Bryant to conquer or prove.

What must be admired about Bryant is his focus and commitment to winning.

At this stage of his career, his mind is what separates Bryant from his peers because no player is able to impose his will like Bryant.

LeBron James is the superior athlete. Dwyane Wade can attack the hole with greater aggression. Carmelo Anthony can score in a quicker flurry.

But none of the gameís young superstars can match Bryantís ability to think a game.

When he needs to be a facilitator, Bryant defers. When a lead is in peril, Bryant is more than capable of taking over.

No other player elicits a reaction that begins with awe, turns to disdain and finishes with appreciation.

Bryant entered Sunday in a bit of a shooting funk, thanks in part to a broken right index finger to his shooting hand that isnít going to mend anytime soon.

In Cleveland last Thursday night, when Bryant needed 31 shots to produce 31 points.

A night later, he returned to Madison Square Garden, scene of last seasonís sublime 61-point game when Bryant set the scoring standard at basketballís mecca.

Against a Knicks team not known for its defence, Bryant needed 24 heaves to record 27 points. He attempted 10 in the fourth quarter.

The ACC isnít exactly MSG, but Bryant loves to play up to the crowd.

He relishes the moment and the opportunity to hit a foe with a dagger.

Crafty best sums up Bryant first-half play against a Raptors team that wasnít at all intimidated by Bryantís mystique and the Lakers cache.

Bryant didnít make a single trip to the line.

He was efficient and probing, biding his time and perpetually plotting.

On this night, he needed only 12 attempts to net 14 first-half points to go along with eight rebounds and five assists.

When he drove the lane in the third quarter, he tried to dunk over Andrea Bargnani by using his left hand. Bryant missed, but the ball found its way into his hands on the left baseline, where Bryantís three-pointer found net.

The best save their best for the end and Sundayís outcome wasnít decided until the very end.

Bryant scored over Hedo Turkoglu when the Raptors decided to play Bryant straight up.

Then came a double team that forced the ball out of Bryantís hands and later a look of anger directed at Shannon Brown when Brown made an ill-advised pass.

With the shot clock about to expire, Bryantís fadeaway heave from in front of the Raptors bench hit iron.

The Raptors retrieved the miss and had 11.4 seconds to win a game and upstage Bryant.

Bryant came within an assist of recording his first career triple-double against the Raptors.

More than the pain in his finger was Sundayís 106-105 loss Bryant had to absorb.

Bryant had a chance to win it, but no mortal, not even Bryant, can hit a 37-foot fadeaway at the buzzer.

The sold-out crowd, though, held its breath.

Thatís the aura Bryant commands.


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