LOS ANGELES – A week had passed since Kobe Bryant(notes) had done anything substantial on a basketball court, and when he walked onto the floor early Monday evening, a bright yellow sleeve covered his troublesome right knee. A report earlier in the day said fluid had been drained from Bryant's knee, the first alarm in Lakerland that something could be amiss. After the Phoenix Suns twice knocked Bryant to the floor and he was slow to get up, the question was fair to ask: Would Bryant's injury limit him too much for him to be effective in the Western Conference finals?
Just when it looked like the NBA had discovered a chink in Bryant's armor, that familiar scowl reappeared. He arched in a tough shot over a pair of defenders, then shook his head in disdain at both his opponent and skeptics. By the time Bryant was done, he had scored 40 points and brought down a 128-107 beating on the Suns.
His message was clear: Until someone knocks him from his throne, he still reigns over the league.
"It just comes with being at the top of the hill," Bryant said of the doubts that have accompanied his injury. "Just more fuel for me."
Not that Bryant was lacking for motivation. The Suns ran him out of the playoffs in consecutive years, frustrating him so much that he demanded a trade in the summer of 2007. Bryant's injury problems and LeBron James'(notes) second straight MVP award also had led many to wonder if Bryant even belonged in James' class anymore.
Bryant, however, measures his success only in championships, and the start of the West finals signaled just one thing: Eight more wins and he would have his fifth title, leaving him just one shy of Michael Jordan. So when Suns forward Grant Hill(notes) tried to get physical with Bryant, the result was predictable: He attacked Hill and the Suns time and again.
Was this personal?
"It's never personal with me," Bryant said behind a smirk that revealed it was exactly that.
For all of the Lakers' struggles, for all of Bryant's injury concerns, both he and the team have only grown stronger as the playoffs have progressed. He scored at least 30 points in all four games of the Lakers' second-round sweep of the Utah Jazz, then he didn't practice a single time this past week so he could rest his legs. A Los Angeles Times report on Monday saying Bryant had his knee drained sent Los Angeles Lakers fans aflutter, but a team source told Yahoo! Sports that the medical procedure took place before the second round.
Bryant was amused by all of the concern. He chided one reporter for being "so observant" about a knee brace he had worn for much of the playoffs in different colors, joked that he was "a couple pounds lighter" after having his knee drained and said "old age" was the key to him settling into a scoring rhythm.
"My legs benefitted a lot," Bryant said of his week off. "I was just able to take some time off and get stronger, get my upper body stronger. It's just kind of like training camp all over again where I don't do much on the court, but I was in the weight room doing what I needed to do."
Bryant seemed to lack his usual explosiveness early in the first quarter and twice got up slow from the court. He didn't make his first shot until there was a minute left in the quarter. Even so, the Suns weren't quite ready to believe Bryant was headed for an off night.
"I don't think I ever overestimate him," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "You knew at some stage he would try to take the game over. That's what he does. He's a great player. He has the focus in one area and that's to try to win a championship."
Bryant closed the opening quarter with a flurry, scoring seven quick points to put the Lakers firmly in control. He floored the Suns in the third quarter while scoring a staggering 21 points that included a two-handed dunk and a tough baseline drive for another basket that left him shaking his head at the fans.
So much for his sore knee.
Bryant coolly drained a 19-foot turnaround jump shot with 9:35 left in the game to push the Lakers' lead to 103-85. He exited the game 42 seconds later with his 11th career 40-point playoff performance. He is now averaging a dominant 28.1 points in this postseason, including six straight games with 30-plus points.
"He continues to do things that put him in a category of his own," Lakers guard Derek Fisher(notes) said. "We like to compare guys to other guys, but there are times where he does things that nobody else could really do it."
Yes, this was yet another statement by Bryant. The Suns aren't getting off easy. He's hungry and he's feeling good about his game again.
"When Kobe has the repertoire that he has and the ability to do so many different things," Fisher said, "when he's healthy, I don't know how much more you can do if you're the opponent."