LOS ANGELES – The lane opened and, suddenly, Kobe Bryant was at the basket, rising higher, higher still, cocking his right arm then violently flushing the ball through the rim.
The force of the dunk nearly scalped Paul Millsap, the Utah Jazz's bullish forward, who had dared to challenge Bryant. Swept up by the viciousness of the act, referee Ed Malloy enthusiastically punched the air with his fist, signaling a foul on Millsap that also could have been mistaken for a celebration of Bryant's greatness.
Bryant was later asked about his late-game dunk, if the knockout blow was meant to send a message to the Jazz and anyone else in the West that the Lakers were primed for the playoffs. He downplayed the significance, and understandably so. The real statement the Lakers delivered on Sunday came in the game's previous 46 minutes.
As dominating as the Lakers looked in their 113-100 victory over the Jazz, they also know this: They can play better. While the Cleveland Cavaliers already appear to be humming along toward the NBA Finals, the Lakers don't seem to have found their final gear yet.
"I hope we save it for down the road," Lamar Odom said. "In June."
Odom thought the Lakers could have won their playoff opener by "25 or 30" points, and Jazz coach Jerry Sloan probably realizes as much. Last week Sloan characterized the Jazz's chances of winning the series as "bleak." It's safe to assume those hopes have now been downgraded to somewhere between "less than bleak" and "nonexistent."
The Lakers shot 71 percent in the first quarter, 61 percent in the second and ran out to a 22-point lead at halftime. Sloan praised his team for its effort and for drawing within nine on three different occasions in the second half. Still, nine points, at the least, is three possessions. At no point did the Lakers feel threatened.
It now remains to be seen whether the Jazz can ever challenge the Lakers in the series. They didn't have Mehmet Okur (hamstring) to help space their offense, and even if they get him back, Sloan admitted these Jazz, in spite of Deron Williams' brilliance, aren't "nasty" like previous teams that "get after you from daylight to dark."
"Part of that is my fault," Sloan said. "I probably haven't been nasty enough with them."
Sloan shouldn't be too hard on himself. Right now, there are six other West playoff teams that would feel overmatched against the Lakers.
The Lakers are considerably more healthy than they were a year ago, and it shows. Trevor Ariza, who was still recovering from a broken right foot at the start of last season's playoffs, went for 21 points against the Jazz. With Jordan Farmar bothered by a sore foot, the Lakers simply plugged in Shannon Brown. He made all three of his 3-pointers.
Andrew Bynum continues to work his way back from his half-season absence and Odom has returned to the bench, so the Lakers are still adjusting on the fly. Only now are they truly beginning to scratch the depth of their potential.
Said Bryant: "We'll continue to get better as a ballclub, improve as a team, and see what happens."
Considering how powerful the Lakers already are, that should worry their West peers. The biggest challenge the West has produced for its reigning champs? Boredom.
The Lakers don't agree with that theory, at least publicly. But they have had a tendency, at times, to play down to the level of their opponent. Lakers coach Phil Jackson was already on guard against that after their first playoff game, faulting their play in the second half.
"It wasn't a coach's delight," he said. "That's for sure."
Unless a suitable challenger emerges before the Finals, the Lakers will continue to look in the mirror to measure themselves. Only they will judge their play versus the potential they have within them. With the exception of a six-game series against the Jazz, the Lakers didn't receive much of a fight along their road to last season's Finals. Perhaps a stiffer test would have better prepped them for what awaited against the Boston Celtics, who proved to be the tougher, superior team in the title series.
The Lakers have returned to the playoffs hungrier and healthier. Anything less than a championship will be considered a failure. That's why Derek Fisher laughed when someone wanted to compare the current Lakers to the Shaq-Kobe three-peat dynasty.
"Until we hoist that trophy and hang another banner in this arena," Fisher said, "there is no comparison."
The Lakers need 16 wins toward that goal. They picked up their first with Bryant leading the way. He found his teammates when they were open and imposed his will on the Jazz only when needed. Late in the second quarter, Bryant took Jazz guard C.J. Miles to the right baseline. He spun Miles one way, then the other, uncorking a rainbow that rose softly before dropping through the net.
Bryant turned and shook his head at the fans seated courtside. Smiling as smug as ever, he sent his message. For his Lakers, the best is still to come.