DENVER – Hours earlier in his hotel room, Kobe Bryant(notes) had watched LeBron James(notes) creep closer to clutching every element of standing as the globe's greatest player. Beyond championships, James still trailed Bryant's carefully constructed reputation as a pressure shooter. No one has a deeper understanding of NBA history, of his own legacy within the context of the best ever.
"A hell of a shot," Bryant punched into a text message to James on the eve of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
What wouldn't go typed into his phone probably didn't go unspoken within Bryant's mind: My turn now. This is a sport of superstars and the NBA has been waiting a long, long time for two such transcendent stars to fortify its Final Four. They're fighting for an NBA championship, yes, but Bryant's ferocity won't allow him to let go of the title as the game's best closer. Bryant still makes the biggest plays, the biggest shots, when it matters most.
So, Bryant made a trip to Denver for Game 3 of the West finals and buried the Nuggets with 41 points, with a rebel's resolve. With Denver's J.R. Smith(notes) draping him, Bryant swished a 3-pointer with 69 seconds left. With his legs wobbly, with nearly 20,000 people in the Pepsi Center cursing his name, Bryant delivered four free throws in the final 22 seconds of the 103-97 victory.
"I rank this right up there with some of the biggest road wins we've had since I've been a Laker," Bryant said.
The reason was simple: The Los Angeles Lakers needed to regain control of this series, of the Denver Nuggets' burgeoning confidence. Denver is a fabulous frontrunner, like a snowball rolling down a hill. The Lakers wanted no part of chasing the Nuggets in this series because they're hard to catch. Now, LeBron James has to travel to Orlando for his Game 3 in the Eastern Conference finals. Now, James has to take control of the Magic, the way that Bryant did the Nuggets.
After that Game 2 loss in L.A., Bryant hatched a plan to attack Denver's defense in a different way. He was resolved that he wouldn't settle for jump shots, that he would get to the rim. What's more, Bryant forced the Nuggets into more pick-and-roll situations where Denver's big men ended up fouling him away from the basket. Bryant made 17 trips to the free-throw line, and paid a price for it. Denver hit him and hit him hard.
He had never had two 40-point games in a playoff series, but he's now done it to Denver. Before the conference finals are done, he'll probably do it again. He was worn out, and desperate for his Lakers teammates to bail him out in the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol(notes) scored on three trips late in the fourth quarter, and Bryant literally replenished his breath in the altitude by planting himself on the baseline and playing spectator to the 7-footer's fade-away jumpers.
"He bought me some time," Bryant said. "I haven't had a break for three years now. And teams are leaning on me, trying to beat me up. And I dish it out, too."
Bryant and James don't talk much, if ever, on the phone. Nike just shamed a sports cable network into a running an embarrassing, hour-long propaganda piece that almost made it seem like these two are close buddies. There's immense respect, but true friendship is probably stretching, sources who know both will tell you.
"I think Kobe is much more focused than LeBron, much quieter," said an NBA executive who knows both well. "He doesn't party. He doesn't hang out. It isn't that LeBron doesn't approach the game in a high-end, professional way, but he's much more carefree and fun, much more of a showman.
"Off the court, he's joking and laughing. I think that, in part, each one wants to be a little like the other. LeBron has the ability to be a guy's guy, the life of the party. Kobe just doesn't have that."
Through it all, Bryant and James are shouldering massive burdens because of spotty supporting casts. What was once a collision course no longer is such a sure thing, but inside of 24 hours, LeBron and Kobe pushed the possibility closer to a reality.
Bryant rolled his eyes and sighed when the debate over LeBron and him was raised on Saturday night. "Are you serious?" he said, and he knows well that the world is serious about this conversation. "Everybody tries to make it out to be this big thing," Bryant said. "But we're … friends."
Friends is a strong word, perhaps, but they're friendly. They played together, but always kept each other at a safe distance. They compete for everything on the planet – MVPs and championships and endorsements. Yet together, they own the sport, the way dueling stars haven't done since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980s. Only, this can't be a truly transcendent rivalry until they're tapping fists before a jump ball in June.
So, LeBron James made the shot of his life and Kobe delivered 41 points, just like magnets, pulling toward each other, toward a forever Finals.
- LeBron James