Who's the best? Kobe not ready to give up title

Johnny Ludden

LOS ANGELES – The words came from Jerry West. Not some drive-time, hang-up-and-listen psychologist. This was Mr. Clutch. The same man who had made Kobe Bryant(notes) a Los Angeles Laker.

"… I do think LeBron has surpassed Kobe as a player."

Et tu, Logo?

"LeBron has surpassed Kobe…"

Kobe Bryant walked onto the Staples Center floor Tuesday evening for the opening game of the Western Conference finals with those four words clinging to him. The Denver Nuggets never had a chance.

The Nuggets can blame their 105-103 loss on their 12 missed free throws or Anthony Carter's(notes) botched inbounds pass or their inability to get the ball to Carmelo Anthony(notes) in those precious final two minutes. But they might as well fault West, too. On this night, there would be no stopping Bryant.

From the 40 points he scored to the defense he played on Anthony and Chauncey Billups(notes) to the free throws he made in those late, tense moments, Bryant carried his Lakers through a game they shouldn't have won. The Nuggets played better, and Lakers coach Phil Jackson admitted as much afterward. But the Nuggets didn't have Bryant.

"It's crazy that you get used to it," Lakers forward Lamar Odom(notes) said. "You get used to greatness."

As general manager of the Lakers, West saw his share of such performances from Bryant. But he's also seen what much of the world now sees: LeBron James(notes) is bigger, more explosive. He sees the floor better. His Cleveland Cavaliers have romped through the playoffs. He's only 24.

So in an interview with Reuters on Monday, West declared James "has a chance to be arguably the greatest player ever to play the game."

"If I had to have somebody make a last-second shot, it would be Kobe Bryant," West said. "But even though it's hard for me to be objective, because I brought Kobe to Los Angeles, I do think LeBron has surpassed Kobe as a player."

Bryant would later say he didn't find any inspiration from West's words. Nor, he said, did it matter who uttered them.

He was lying.

The NBA could hand LeBron the MVP trophy, but this was different. This mattered. West had traded for him on draft night. Supported him when he needed support. Allowed him to use Hollywood as his stage. At times, Bryant had described West as a second father.

Deep down, Dad's words had to sting. LeBron? Already? He hasn't even won a title.

So when someone mentioned West's comments after the game, Bryant's pointed reply revealed his true indignation. Was he really having to answer this question?

"I've been telling you guys for years that's not something I'm concerned with," he said. "… If I wanted to go out there and put up 35 points a night, I could do that. That's not my mission. My mission is to win a championship.

"And the debate of who is the best player, this is going to go on for whatever."

Bryant, naturally, set about building a case for himself. As soon as West's words became public, Jackson likely knew what was coming: Kobe would impose himself on the game. The only question was whether it would be to the Lakers' benefit or detriment.

This is the high wire the Lakers always walk with Kobe. To challenge him is to consume him. But while the offense did stick, at times, with Bryant on Tuesday, his aggressiveness was welcomed on a night when his teammates lacked either energy or courage. Ten minutes into the game, the Lakers trailed by 13 points.

"Once I sensed we didn't have the energy," Bryant said, "I had to take it upon myself to lead by example."

Said Jackson: "Tonight we had very little else going on for us, and he muscled his way through that game."

Bryant made sure the Nuggets felt him. He opened the game on Billups, then switched to J.R. Smith(notes), then took on Anthony late after Trevor Ariza(notes) ran into foul trouble. With Anthony on his way to a 39-point performance, Bryant had three words for Ariza: I've got him.

"He likes to take challenges," Ariza said, "and he did that tonight."

Bryant yielded a good 25 pounds to Anthony, but covered him well enough on an inbounds play with 30.5 seconds left to force Carter to hesitate and instead look toward Billups. When Carter floated his pass, Ariza streaked in for the interception, giving the Lakers all they needed to close out the win.

By then, Bryant had already dominated the final quarter. With the Lakers down seven and less than seven minutes remaining, he scored 15 of their final 23 points. The Nuggets tried to double-team him, so he rifled a pass to Derek Fisher(notes) for the go-ahead 3-pointer.

All of this came after Bryant reinjured the ring finger on his shooting hand … and after he picked up his fifth technical of the playoffs for slamming the ball to the court following one of several no-calls. Two more technicals and he'll have to serve a one-game suspension.

"I won't get another one," he said.

The Lakers should hope not. Provided the Nuggets don't collapse after their near-miss, this figures to be a tough series. The Lakers will have to lean on Bryant again, and, for Bryant, these playoffs are everything. If Los Angeles doesn't win the championship, it's his legacy that takes a hit: Once again, Kobe comes up short without Shaq at his side.

These things matter to Bryant, just like West's words likely did. LeBron has surpassed Kobe?

Kobe hung his 40 points on the Nuggets. Thirty minutes later, jaw squared, eyes ablaze, he stared into the cameras and reminded everyone he still loves Jerry West. He didn't say anything about believing him.