No athlete on the planet _ well, at least on this side of the putting green from Tiger Woods _ closes quite like Kobe Bryant. He's the ice-in-his-veins killer. The Terminator. The one you call to finish the job. Mr. Clutch. He owns the fourth quarter. Most of the time.
But in Game 3 of the NBA finals on Tuesday night, Bryant, looking tired and mortal, gave new life to the here-they-come-again Orlando Magic, who shot a finals record 63 percent in a 108-104 win over the Los Angeles Lakers and snapped an 0-for-6 franchise mark in the finals.
With the Lakers eyeing a chance to open a 3-0 series lead and with a fourth title that he has obsessed about almost within his reach, Bryant slipped up.
Woods, arms folded on his chest, sat courtside and watched Bryant falter.
The Magic saw it, too. They don't expect to see it again.
"We have to understand," Magic guard Rafer Alston said as the teams worked out in preparation of Thursday's Game 4. "He's not one to let it happen on back-to-back occasions."
Bryant and the Lakers have been bouncing back since the start of the postseason. Pursuing a 15th NBA crown one year after losing to the Boston Celtics, they are 6-0 after a playoff loss. They can regain control of the best-of-seven series, but they'd better be careful not to give Orlando any more momentum.
As they showed in Game 3, the Magic can shoot holes through any dream.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson feels his team can do more defensively to stop the Magic's marksmen, but sometimes nothing can be done when shots are dropping.
"You've got to give credit where credit is due," he said. "They hit shots."
Bryant came out intent to land a knockout shot in Game 3. He eased into the offensive flow, but then went on a tear, scoring 17 points in the final 5:41 of the first quarter. At halftime, he had 21 and although the Magic were shooting an unconscious 75 percent, the Lakers trailed by only four points.
But in the second half, Bryant, who because of his commitment to USA Basketball has been playing nearly nonstop for three years, wore down. He shot just 3 of 10 from the field and missed four free throws. In the fourth quarter, normally his signature time, he went 2 of 6, missed all three 3-point attempts and had the ball stolen on a crucial possession in the last 30 seconds.
On Wednesday, Bryant, who has been alternately surly and serene with the media throughout this series, took offense to the notion that he had "hit the wall" in the fourth quarter.
"As far as me hitting the wall, so what if I did?" Bryant wondered. "I didn't, but so what if I did?"
What does it mean if you did?
"It means nothing," he countered.
"Because I'll run straight through it."
Jackson knew his superstar was fatigued in Game 3 and sat him for nearly five minutes at the start of the fourth quarter so he would have energy in the closing minutes. But the cumulative effect of Orlando's defense and Bryant working so hard early on caught up to him.
The Lakers aren't used to Kobe not being Kobe with the game on the line.
"Am I surprised?" center Pau Gasol said. "I guess you could say that because most of the time he is effective and does finish well. "That's why everybody talks about him being a clutch player, which he deserves and earned. The last game really didn't go that well, but we expect the next game to be a different story."
Following Games 1 and 2, it appeared this series matching one of the league's most famed franchises and a relative upstart would be a brief one. The Magic had made their way to their first finals since 1995 on the strength of Dwight Howard's inside game and superior outside shooting. But in L.A., Orlando was just O.K.
However, back on their home floor and in front of their frenzied fans, the Magic shot like no team in 360 previous finals games.
During one stretch in the opening half, Orlando made a remarkable 21 of 24 shots.
Like nearly every afternoon in steamy Central Florida, the Magic can heat up in a hurry. Yet despite having two records set against them and not playing with discipline on defense, the Lakers only lost by four points. They missed 10 free throws and had some costly turnovers.
But this loss stung, and Bryant, who characterized his late-game performance as "disappointing," said he and his teammates are not taking any consolation from their close call.
The Magic, who made an NBA record 23 3-pointers in a win at Sacramento in January and dropped 17 3s on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, can shoot the lights out again.
"They're in this position because they shoot the ball well," Bryant said. "It's not something that is just a fluke or one game where they got hot. I mean, they get hot and stay hot. When that happens, you're dealing with a monster."
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy had no explanation for his team's record-setting shooting spree. The Magic shot just 29.9 percent in Game 1 and 41.8 percent in Game 2.
"Our ball movement was good, but I don't care how good your ball movement is and the quality of shot you get," he said. "You're not going to put the ball in the basket at that rate very often. But it's one of those nights, thankfully, that a lot of shots went down."
As Van Gundy concluded his mandatory media interview session, a moderator announced that the Magic's practice would be open for 30 minutes.
"No practice," Van Gundy hollered as he left the dais. "But you can watch them shoot around."
As if they need the work.