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Kobe's Lakers into Finals – your turn, LeBron

Johnny Ludden
Yahoo Sports

DENVER – For one quarter, nearly two, Kobe Bryant(notes) waited. He drew the defense away from his teammates, he watched their confidence build and, still, the Denver Nuggets clung to the Los Angeles Lakers. No, this wasn't good enough. The NBA Finals were too close, too fragile an opportunity, to leave this night to chance, and Bryant knew it.

As the final few minutes of the first half started to tick away, he stepped into a short jump shot. A 22-footer over Carmelo Anthony(notes) followed. Anthony pressed closer the next time down the floor, but Bryant rose higher still, burying yet another dagger.

Before the Nuggets could look up, Bryant had the ball back in his hands, launching a 3-pointer from the right corner that slipped through the net just as easily as the three shots before it. Denver coach George Karl later joked that during those three minutes even "Jesus would have had trouble" covering Bryant and, some 2,200 miles away in a Florida hotel room, another basketball god was likely watching.

LeBron James(notes)?

Your turn.

Nike can relax. At least one puppet won't be spending next week sitting on the couch, or fishing, or whatever it is that puppets do once they're on puppet vacation. Kobe is headed back to the Finals after delivering 35 points and 10 assists in a command performance that allowed the Lakers to close out the Nuggets in six games with a 119-92 rout.

Whether LeBron joins Kobe there doesn't matter as much as the fact that Bryant once again will be playing for a championship. For Kobe, this is where the debate begins and ends. LeBron can put on a performance for the ages, as he's done against the Orlando Magic, but in Kobe's world, he's chasing only Michael Jordan's six titles. If he gets the opportunity to go through LeBron for No. 4, so be it.

One of those Nike commercials has Kobe taunting LeBron with his three championship rings. The genius of the ad is that this is truly how Kobe measures greatness.

"He wants to be the best player to ever have played this game," Lakers guard Derek Fisher(notes) said. "That's what he works at every day. He feels like however many more years he plays in this league, winning championships is the thing that separates guys within that discussion. When you talk about the best ever, there are three or four guys who always come up because their teams won championships. That's his No. 1 concern.

"I don't think what other guys are doing is his priority to respond to it, but I do know he looks, observes, takes in anything that will motivate him to want to continue to be the best player out there, regardless of who's playing."

Kobe knows what LeBron has done in these playoffs. He knows that Jerry West said LeBron has surpassed him as the best all-around player. He knows about all those 40-point nights. And anyone who knows Kobe understands this has only stoked his fire.

But for Kobe to continue to chase M.J., for him to keep LeBron at bay, he first had to reach the Finals. This will be his sixth trip, and he has yet to win a title since 2002. That's seven long years. The three lost seasons after the Lakers removed Shaq from his side made him only that much hungrier.

After the Lakers were embarrassed by the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of last season's Finals, Bryant stewed in a room just opposite from where Kevin Garnett(notes) and Paul Pierce(notes) celebrated. The Lakers' locker room emptied, their bus idled in the loading dock, and still Bryant stayed. Such opportunities are hard to come by. Bryant knew making it back wouldn't be easy.

Nor has it been. The Houston Rockets pushed the Lakers to seven games, the Nuggets took them to six. Both series were considerably more physical than anything the Lakers faced on their road to last season's Finals. Along the way, they also lost their sense of entitlement.

"Those are things that make you tougher," Bryant said.

Too many of the Lakers were too young or too inexperienced to give Bryant the help he needed in last season's Finals. Some of them were still too cocky when these playoffs began. So as Bryant began to take control of Friday's game, Fisher was there to remind his younger teammates to not let the moment pass them by. Seize the opportunity, he told them. Don't wait.

"We've all been through a lot individually, collectively," Fisher said. "Now's our time to finish what we didn't finish last season."

For all of the brilliant moves Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak made to assemble this roster, bringing Fisher back still ranks among the best. Fisher's shot has deserted him for stretches in these playoffs. Nor can he stay in front of the league's quicker guards. But he's still the only Laker who truly understands what makes Kobe tick, who knows when the offense has shifted too far toward No. 24.

The Lakers had the Nuggets beat once they realized they needed to feed off Bryant's greatness instead of waiting for it to rescue them. After the Game 4 loss, Bryant began to facilitate the Lakers' offense rather than carry it. For all of the talk about LeBron accounting for 32 consecutive points, either by his own shot or an assist, in the Cleveland Cavaliers' Game 5 victory on Thursday, Bryant was nearly as remarkable one night later. When the Lakers pulled away in the second quarter, he had a hand in 21 of their final 23 points.

"Once he is clicking on all cylinders, no one is going to beat him," Nuggets guard J.R. Smith(notes) said.

While Bryant admitted to being fatigued in this series, he has also seemed to only get stronger as these playoffs have gone along. He averaged 34 points in the series, identical to what he averaged during last season's conference finals and second in his career only to the 35 points he averaged in the 2000 West semifinals.

In truth, though, it might be the Lakers who have gotten better around Bryant.

"He's had some great individual performances, but it was overshadowed by the lack of efficiency and things just kind of looking out of place," Fisher said. "Guys individually not shooting well, not playing well. So there was more talk about … Kobe having to do too much, as opposed to Kobe's just playing really good.

"So, now, I think with our team playing really well around him, it's making the same thing he was doing before just look a lot better. Just different packaging."

The Lakers figure to benefit only that much more from the five days off before the start of the Finals. They only had a day to prepare for the Nuggets and they survived. Their reward now is a chance to rest.

"I saw little cracks in the Lakers and somehow we've cemented those cracks back up," Karl said. "I think they're the best team right now in the NBA."

That can change, but the Lakers know this much: They're back in the Finals. Kobe will get another crack at his fourth title and, in his mind, a chance to settle one other growing challenge.

Best player?

Your turn, LeBron.