LOS ANGELES – Here was the contrarian Kobe Bryant, playing the pacifist, the passer, the smirking wise guy tapping his foot at the starting line, letting the world champions sprint out at the sound of the starter's gun. Almost a game within the game for him, this was just to see how long Bryant could hold back the greatest player on the planet.
Phil Jackson declared his superstar on "vacation" for well into the third period, sniffing that his scoreless MVP "had gotten us out of rhythm," as the Los Angeles Lakers flailed down 20 points to the world champions. This wasn't the design on the coach's chalkboard, but Bryant delivering an unauthorized message of defiance to the San Antonio Spurs.
Here's your head start, a silent Staples Center, and a chance to steal home court in the Western Conference finals.
Here's Game 1 on my turf, my terms.
"I can get off anytime," Kobe Bryant marveled of Kobe Bryant. "And … I did …."
Long before the deed was done with the Lakers' 89-85 victory, Bryant walked into a timeout huddle with a little less than six minutes left in the third, four points to his name and an angry mob on his heels. Tim Duncan had gone wild on the inside, treating Pau Gasol like a lost, lost Memphis Grizzly. It was 65-45 here on Wednesday, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich watched Bryant with equal doses of bewilderment and bemusement.
"Kobe was doing his trust-his-teammates thing," he said.
This wasn't so much trusting his teammates, or as Bryant called it, "managing the game," as it had been a streak of stubbornness. There was such an uneasiness in the stands, confusion over why the old team with a Game 7 and a sleepless night on a New Orleans tarmac in its past 48 hours had taken matters to the young, rested Lakers.
Eventually, Bryant unleashed a devastating array of jump shots, breathless drives and lob dunk passes to Gasol to get the game close for a fourth quarter run. As bad as it got, Bryant still left you believing that he had the game on a yo-yo, that he could still wind it back whenever he so chose. Three shots at halftime, 43 points on the board and yet he never let a sense of doom overtake the Lakers.
Some six seasons ago, the Lakers were down 20 to the Sacramento Kings in the conference finals before Robert Horry's famous winning shot, but that comeback somehow felt so much different to Bryant. It's strange, considering that those Kings had such a glass chin and no rings, and these Spurs such an iron will.
"I have been in games where we have been down that much and it felt like were down 20, and coming back felt like a big hill," Bryant confessed. "This game didn't feel like that."
There was such a matter-of-factness to Bryant delivering this victory, for hitting the clinching basket on a drive, rise and jumper over pain-in-the-ass Bruce Bowen with 23.9 seconds left. Somehow, Bryant found his way to 27 points and nine assists as he did to the Spurs what they did to the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of these Western playoffs.
This was a fabulous mind game played on the Spurs, something they long have mastered. Rest assured, San Antonio psyched the Suns and New Orleans Hornets out of these playoffs. Teams do beat the Spurs, but they seldom mess with them that way. Bryant showed them that he could play a quarter and a half and still raise his arms at night's end.
"He was checking it all out to see where his territory was going to be," Popovich said. "In the second half, he went to work."
After a mere three shots at the half, his territory turned to be inside the Spurs' minds. More than the NBA finals, this is the series when Bryant's toughness, his guile, is needed to get the Lakers over. They still are largely so young, so untested on a grand stage. Finally, this is the series when the Lakers desperately miss Andrew Bynum. Denver was a competitive joke; the Utah Jazz's toughest player happens to be a point guard. But the Spurs promise to test these Lakers in ways of the body and mind.
For this reason, Bryant still allowed that, "It is big for a young team to come back from 20 against the defending champs."
Only there, Bryant is talking about his teammates – Jordan Farmer and Sasha Vujacic and perhaps even Gasol, too. Not himself. In the past, when Bryant had grown tired of getting blistered for gunning, he'd occasionally break out one of these passive shooting nights. He did it in the Shaq days, and again later, too. Ultimately, his ability to be a leader, to transcend teammates, won him the MVP this year. In every way, Bryant's greatness has been validated. He's playing arrogantly, full of himself, and this is good for the Lakers. This is something of a salvation on this championship chase.
In the final minutes, the Spurs were sloppy with the ball, willing to let Ime Udoka decide their fate with his wobbly jump shots. The champs crumbled in the fourth, and all along, Bryant seemed to see it coming. He waited and waited on Wednesday night, watching the Spurs speed past him, and maybe even amazed himself in the process.
Kobe Bryant can get off anytime, he shrugged. Anytime on anyone. It sure sounded cocky, but that wasn't such a bad thing for these Lakers. That's how you go after the world champions. His turf, his terms. Kobe with the Spurs on a yo-yo.