Associated Press Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Kobe Bryant has changed his look.
Gone is the teeth-baring, nose-flaring, eyes-on-the-prize scowl that the Los Angeles Lakers star showed again and again in Game 1 of the NBA finals. The intensity diminished after Game 2, his expression morphing into one of relief and sheer luck.
A botched layup by Magic rookie Courtney Lee is perhaps the biggest reason why these finals are not tied and why Bryant isn't smiling even with his team up 2-0. That level of seriousness might be cause for Orlando to grimace.
The Magic nearly returned from Los Angeles with the best-of-seven series tied. Instead, they're down 2-0, and now Bryant has a promise for Game 3 on Tuesday night.
"We're about to kick it up," he said. "You'd better believe it. We're close. You see what I'm saying? This is the finals. We're going to be ready to go."
For all the bravado, the Lakers can be careless, a team with holes and an inability to finish off an opponent as a champion must. They let Houston extend a series despite the absence of Yao Ming. Denver outmuscled and outhustled a Lakers team that seemed to lose its enthusiasm until Game 6 of the conference finals.
Los Angeles believes those days are over.
"We're playing tougher," forward Pau Gasol said. "We understand what it takes to go get the championship."
This is a franchise closing in on its 15th title. It is facing Magic team still searching for its first finals victory. Bryants insists this is no time to get comfortable.
"What's there to be happy about?" he asked. "The job's not finished."
The Magic have had their shots — one in particular — to change the series.
Lee missed a wide-open, alley-oop layup that would have won Game 2 at the fourth-quarter buzzer Sunday night. It was another chapter in a long history of Magic misery, one that now has them 0-6 in finals games.
Call it the "alley-oops." This mistake, however, might hurt the most.
Orlando has been able to come back from seemingly every heartbreak this season — injuries, four last-second losses in the playoffs and series deficits in two rounds. But this could be too tough a challenge. Only three teams have won a title after losing the first two games in the finals, most recently Miami over Dallas in 2006.
"We've just got to go home and take care of business," Magic center Dwight Howard said. "The Lakers did a good job of protecting their home, and now it's our turn to do the same thing. We've been in some tough situations. We've just got to fight our way out."
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy led the Heat to start that 2005-06 season before stepping aside. He was still on the Heat payroll helping Pat Riley from afar.
"Dallas never won another game," Van Gundy said. "You know, series can change."
The Magic would need quite a turnaround. Their backcourt has been dreadful. Rafer Alston and Jameer Nelson, who returned for the finals after being out since early February because of shoulder surgery, were so inconsistent that Van Gundy benched them for most of the fourth quarter to have 6-foot-10 forward Hedo Turkoglu run the point.
The Magic had 20 turnovers, just 22 assists and no true ballhandler to make the Lakers pay for double-teaming Howard. With Nelson coming off the bench in place of reliable reserve Anthony Johnson and Alston having already said he wasn't pleased with his minutes in Game 1, Van Gundy might face another dilemma.
"We were just trying to see if we could get somebody out there who would make shots off of the double teams and off the pick-and-rolls and things like that," Van Gundy said. "I thought our guys fought hard, but we couldn't make enough plays. And the 20 turnovers crushed us."
The Lakers know the Magic, too, could change in a moment.
One of the streakiest teams in the league all season, Orlando has shot well at home. It plays with a carefree attitude, and Bryant says that's reason to be wary.
"This is a very loosey-goosey team we're playing against," he said. "You seen some of the shots they hit. Those are tough shots — supposed to be tough shots. For them it's like shooting fish in a barrel. They're just thinking about Game 3, and so are we."