LOS ANGELES – Down to three healthy digits on his shooting hand, his evening yet to stretch from court to X-ray machine, Kobe Bryant dug his shoulder into LeBron James' chest, bumped him back then bumped him again. James yielded a sliver of space, and that was all Bryant needed. He spun on his toes, lifted in the air and released a perfect rainbow of a shot that dropped through the net.
On this night, the highlights were few and far between for Bryant, unless you consider herding James into a corral of 7-footers must-see TV. And maybe that was the biggest statement the Los Angeles Lakers made with their 105-88 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bryant shared the floor with James for the first time this season, the reigning MVP versus the current favorite, and if Kobe proved anything it was this: With these Lakers, he doesn't always have to be, well, Kobe.
There was a time not too long ago when Bryant needed the big stage, the marquee matchup, to reassert his greatness. LeBron … Dwyane Wade … Paul Pierce, they all gave him the chance to size up his game. Was there anything more exciting than watching Kobe try to go shot-for-shot with one of his rivals?
Kobe and LeBron still had their mano-y-mano moments on Monday, including one brief stretch in the fourth quarter where James followed Bryant's 3-pointer with a long jumper. One minute later, Bryant buried a turnaround over James' head then delivered the shot of the night, dusting off James with a bump, and throwing in a floater as he drifted far left of the rim. But for all the hype surrounding their meeting, neither Bryant nor James defined the game with their shot-making. Bryant, who totaled 20 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and five turnovers, instead picked his spots, content to help the Lakers' big men exploit their size advantage inside.
"I think Kobe still comes to the games looking for challenges night in and night out," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I think just his challenge level has become a little more refined. He does more of what the team needs to do."
Of late, that's also meant taking on the primary assignment of guarding the opposing team's top perimeter scorer. While the Cavs tried to keep James out of foul trouble by not putting him on Bryant until the fourth quarter, Bryant guarded James from the moment they stepped on the court. The Lakers gave Bryant help on pick-on-rolls and loaded up their defense so that Bryant always seemed to be funneling James into a crowd. James finished with 23 points on 25 shots with six turnovers.
Jackson said Bryant asked to stay on James even after Trevor Ariza, the Lakers' other credible perimeter defender, checked into the game. Bryant joked that he and Ariza fought for the assignment. "Big brother," Bryant said, "won out."
"If he's going to go off for a big night, I'll sleep much better if he does it on me as opposed to going to sleep wishing I could have guarded him in those situations and maybe tried something different," Bryant said. "If he's going to have a big night, I want to take the responsibility."
Bryant has started to take that assignment more frequently. He guarded Wade for much of the Lakers' victory over Miami eight days earlier. And when San Antonio Spurs guard Roger Mason beat the Lakers last week with a clutch shot in the closing seconds? The inbound pass went to Mason because Manu Ginobili had been unable to separate from Bryant.
The Lakers can afford to have Bryant expend more energy on the defensive end of the floor because they don't lack for scoring on the other. That was evident Monday when Bryant dislocated his right ring finger after diving for the ball less than two minutes into the game. He grabbed the finger in pain and quickly motioned to the sideline for help.
"To be honest with you, when I did it, I looked at my hand, felt the finger and … I thought I was done, period," Bryant said. "It scared the hell out of me.
"I thought I had two fingers on one. It was disgusting."
Lakers trainer Gary Vitti popped the finger back in place during a timeout. Bryant stayed in the game, but didn't seem to have too much confidence in his finger, catching one pass with only his left hand. He served as the Lakers' playmaker for most of the first half before drilling a jump shot over James with a tenth of a second left in the second quarter.
"With this particular injury, to be honest with you, if Gary would have told me to get off the court," Bryant said, "I would have gotten off the court."
Bryant has realized that as well. As much as this game was billed as a meeting between the league's top two MVP candidates, what was more impressive was that both teams entered the evening leading their respective conferences. And the very thing that works against Bryant in the MVP race is the same thing that gives him his greatest chance at a fourth championship: No other team in the league can match the depth of his supporting cast.
Bryant already has his MVP trophy. He'll live if he has to cede the award to James this season. The honor has begun to ring hollow more often than not anyway; only twice in the past 10 years has the league MVP also won the championship.
On Monday, Bryant was happy enough to walk off with the win. X-rays on his finger were negative and he said his latest injury didn't impact the torn tendon in his right pinky he suffered last season. Bryant doesn't expect to miss any time, but his finger was still "throbbing" after the game. He might have to continue to alter his stroke as he did in the second half when he used primarily his index and middle fingers to launch the ball.
Bryant didn't sound too concerned. He's still got three working fingers left. If this season has taught him anything, it's that he doesn't always have to lift these Lakers by himself.