LOS ANGELES (AP)—When the Staples Center crowd chants “MVP! MVP” in Kobe Bryant’s direction Sunday, it won’t simply be based on sentiment.
While the Los Angeles Lakers’ players were watching the finale of the Houston-Utah first-round playoff series Friday night at a Hollywood restaurant, Bryant received an e-mail informing him he had won his first Most Valuable Player award.
While it hasn’t been made official, the honor has been expected since the completion of the regular season 2 1/2 weeks ago, when the Bryant-led Lakers finished with a Western Conference-best 57-25 record.
The word came through a Los Angeles Times report, which quoted sources as saying NBA commissioner David Stern would be in Los Angeles this week to present the MVP trophy to Bryant. That’s expected to happen Wednesday night before Game 2.
League spokesman Brian McIntyre declined to confirm or deny the Times report, and wouldn’t comment further.
“The game tomorrow is a beast sitting on my shoulders,” Bryant said after practice Saturday, referring to the opener of the second-round series against the Jazz. “I’m reserving judgment until I hear from David Stern.”
That being said, the 29-year-old Bryant didn’t need much prodding to share his feelings.
“I’m very excited about it. I didn’t know if it was going to happen in my career,” he told reporters. “It’s a great honor. It means a lot. To me, it’s very special. It’s very special to share it with these guys.”
Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic said Bryant informed his teammates at the restaurant.
“We congratulated him,” Vujacic said. “He deserved it. He told us how proud he is of the whole team.”
Vujacic smiled when asked if Bryant’s teammates went into an “MVP! MVP!” chant upon hearing the news.
“When he paid the bill, we did. Not before,” Vujacic said.
“I bit the bullet,” Bryant confirmed when asked if he picked up the check.
Tipoff Sunday will be some 38 1/2 hours after the Jazz beat the Rockets 113-91 to win the series 4-2 and reach the second round. The Lakers haven’t played since Monday night, when they completed a first-round sweep of the Denver Nuggets.
“Let’s play. Let’s get this under way,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
“We’re ready to go. We’re excited about the opportunity,” Bryant said.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan waxed philosophical regarding the quick turnaround.
“We’ll just have to go play, that’s the way the rules are,” he said before the Jazz flew to Los Angeles. “They’ve had a chance to prepare for us. Their energy level should be as high as it can get, but we still have to play the game.”
Jackson had a different take, saying: “We just have to come out and match their energy. We’ve been sitting around for six days.”
Sloan and Jackson are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls to victory over Sloan’s Jazz in the 1998 NBA finals.
The Lakers won three of the four regular-season games between the teams, but were without Pau Gasol in all four. Three were played before he joined the Lakers on Feb. 1, and he missed the fourth because of a sprained ankle. Despite playing short-handed, the Lakers won a 106-95 decision March 20 to snap Utah’s 19-game home winning streak. The Jazz had an NBA-best 37-4 record at home, but they were just 17-24 on the road.
“Regular season’s not playoffs,” Jackson said when asked the significance of his team’s record against the Jazz.
“Bad Boy,” Bryant said of Williams. “I love his game. He’s a little Cadillac, that’s what I call him. He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal player.”
Williams made six 3-pointers and had 25 points and nine assists in the finale against Houston.
While Williams might represent a challenge for the Lakers, Bryant represents the ultimate challenge. He averaged 28.3 points during the regular season and 33.5 points in the first-round sweep of Denver.
“You tell me somebody in this league that is equipped to guard him,” Sloan said. “He’s a great player, and you don’t stop great players.”
Utah’s Andrei Kirilenko pointed to the Lakers’ supporting cast.
“I don’t think we need to pay attention on Kobe only,” Kirilenko said. “It’s all about team defense. It’s all about helping each other defensively. We have succeeded in the past.”
The Jazz were successful last season, reaching the conference finals before losing to eventual champion San Antonio. Lakers guard Derek Fisher was a key member of that team, averaging 10.1 points while playing in all 82 games with 61 starts.
Fisher played his first eight NBA seasons with the Lakers before leaving to sign a free-agent contract with Golden State, where he played two years before being traded to the Jazz before last season.
He drew attention last spring when he left the Jazz before Game 2 of the conference semifinals to go to New York, where his 10-month-old daughter, Tatum, was treated for a cancerous tumor in her left eye, but returned in the third quarter and scored all five of his points in overtime of Utah’s 127-117 victory over the Warriors.
Fisher asked the Jazz to release him from his contract last summer so he could concentrate on finding the best medical care for his daughter, and that turned out to be in Los Angeles.
“They’re a confident group,” Fisher said of the Jazz. “I’m happy they’ve made it to this point. But they stand in the way of my goal and the goal of my teammates.”