LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant's free-throw parade began early Sunday afternoon and lasted until 13 seconds remained. Twenty-three times Bryant stepped to the foul line against the Utah Jazz, so many that the procession seemed to exhaust even the Staples Center's normally exuberant sellout crowd.
M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-Phew!
No matter. Bryant has been serenaded nearly every night he's taken the floor here for the past few seasons. He even heard the chant last week in Colorado, of all places, as he snuffed the life out of the Denver Nuggets. Sunday, however, was different, and it had nothing to do with volume.
Bryant can officially answer to it now.
"Before," Bryant said, "it was kind of like, 'Oh, thanks, but I'm not going to win it anyway.' "
That changes Wednesday when NBA commissioner David Stern hands Bryant the Maurice Podoloff Trophy before Game 2 of the Los Angeles Lakers' Western Conference semifinal against Utah. Knowing Bryant, he'll graciously accept the award, smile for the cameras and then club the Jazz with the trophy. On Sunday, he totaled 38 points, seven assists and six rebounds, using the Lakers' series-opening 109-98 victory to validate his candidacy.
Bryant took control of the game in the second quarter, splitting Andrei Kirilenko and Deron Williams with a crossover dribble to get to the rim for a basket and foul, taking a long lead pass from Lamar Odom for a layup, setting up Pau Gasol for a dunk with a perfect crosscourt lob. But it was what happened in the preceding three minutes that showed why Bryant is taking home his first MVP award – and why the Lakers, not the Boston Celtics or San Antonio Spurs, are now the most feared team left in the playoffs.
Then, with Bryant idling on the bench, Sasha Vujacic banked in a driving layup as he was fouled. One minute later, Vujacic threw in a three-pointer. Then another.
These Lakers are better in large part because Bryant has made them better. And Bryant has made them better by believing in them. In previous seasons, he too often tried to go it alone. He had legitimate reasons for doing so; for one, handing Smush Parker the keys to the offense always made for a risky proposition. But these young Lakers, whether it be Vujacic, Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar or Luke Walton, never were going to realize their potential until Bryant showed confidence in them.
"It's obvious we've had some ups and down with injuries, and at different times he felt he had to do more to take over games," Walton said. "But for the most part he's had a lot of trust in us. I think that's really showing in how strong our team is now because we're all used to getting those shots and making those plays as opposed to just sitting around.
"Kobe's the most talented player in the world, but it's the first year he won (MVP). So it says a lot about him, but it also says a lot about us coming through."
Bryant obviously didn't expect the Lakers to be here. The irony of him being voted MVP is that he is being rewarded for leading a team he didn't want to be a part of six months ago. When he was introduced on opening night the home crowd serenaded him with boos.
But Bryant has grown, too. First Bynum, then Gasol gave him a reason to believe. Just as Bryant has made his teammates better, they, too, have helped him improve. On Sunday, he scored 24 points in the first half while taking only eight official shots.
"They've got good pieces around him," Jazz forward Carlos Boozer said. "Guys that can finish, score and that helps him a lot with his game."
Derek Fisher is among those guys. He helped pace the Lakers to their three-peat and last season he helped take these young Jazz to the Western Conference finals. Utah let him out of his contract so he could play in a city that could afford his daughter better medical care. He chose Los Angeles, giving Bryant a trusted teammate and giving the Lakers another valued veteran voice in the locker room. On Sunday, Fisher thanked the Jazz by swiping six steals and helping harass Williams into missing 13 of his 18 shots.
"I think probably what confused him was because of how old I am," Fisher joked. "I am so slow when he fakes I don't go for it because I don't react that fast."
Williams likely won't shoot so poorly Wednesday, and that's one reason this series is far from over. The Jazz had a two-day turnaround after closing out the Houston Rockets; with the next two days off, they should come back better prepared. They already threw a scare into the Lakers on Sunday, reducing what had been a 19-point deficit to four. In doing so they also exposed the Lakers' soft interior: Utah's 25 offensive rebounds were just two shy of its franchise playoff record.
The Jazz, to no surprise, played like a football team in tank tops. No team sets harder screens or rebounds more ferociously. No team also fouls more often, and that plays into Bryant's hands. He welcomes the physicality "as a chance to bang," and he did just that, pinballing off the Jazz to earn his 23 free-throw attempts. He also made a franchise-record 21 of them, including his first 18, prompting Odom to call him "Kobe-Wan Kenobi."
"His Jedi mentality to will a basketball in," Odom said, "is like no other player in the NBA."
That's quite a change from 11 years ago. Then an 18-year-old rookie, Bryant ran into the Jazz in the second round of the playoffs. He short-armed a potential game-winning 14-footer at the end of regulation in Utah's series-clinching Game 5 victory then fired up three airballs from the three-point line in overtime.
Bryant also remembers something else from that day. The MVP chant was reserved for a guy named Karl Malone.
On Sunday? Victory secure, Bryant stepped to the foul line one last time, set his feet and cocked his wrist.
M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!
This time it meant something.