CLEVELAND – They are pals only in sneaker commercial puppet ads, so Kobe Bryant(notes) had no use for one of those congratulatory star-to-star half-hug mid-court meetings. The game was over, he was gone. As LeBron James(notes) preened to a screaming, celebratory sellout, Bryant turned his back, marched through the tunnel seething, scowling and promising hell to pay for the Los Angeles Lakers. These were old times for Bryant, angry, sullen and promising pure misery.
"They know I'm pissed off," Bryant sniffed in the losing locker room. "I don't need to say anything right now."
Only Bryant did, and he will again and again. Bryant is never happier than when he's miserable, than when he has a boogeyman threatening the championship fabric of this burgeoning dynasty.
All around him, Bryant has reasons to be livid Thursday night: Pau Gasol(notes) missed two free throws in the final seconds. The frontline had been outmuscled everywhere. James toyed with Ron Artest(notes) for his 37 points, owning this night on a yo-yo. Phil Jackson left Bryant on the bench for all but five minutes of the fourth quarter, the coach refusing to treat these Cavs as anything more than another back-to-back when Bryant's body needed to be protected for the long run.
All angered Bryant, and all promises to make for a most unpleasant Kobe over the next seven games of this trip.
Nevertheless, he should've delivered some self-loathe for his part in a 93-87 loss to the Cavaliers. He tried too hard Thursday night – needing 31 shots for his 31 points. No, Bryant didn't want to lose that season series to the Cavaliers, but there was something bigger happening here and assuredly it wasn't lost on Kobe Bryant. However flimsy the possibility, Bryant lost his chance to be the MVP again.
When everyone dissects these two candidacies come April, it will keep coming back to this: LeBron swept the Lakers and Kobe, beat them in Staples Center on Christmas and again with Mo Williams(notes) out for a month with a shoulder injury. Once more, James will be praised for doing more with less, and Bryant will be partially penalized in the MVP voting for something that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird never were in the 1980s: Playing with too much talent.
With LeBron's second straight MVP close to secured, Bryant must return his mind to what's still most available to him: Another NBA Finals MVP.
Nevertheless, the Lakers had no excuse for letting this one slip away and there were so many reasons, so many levels, that this enraged Bryant. There's James, whom Bryant doesn't believe has passed him as the game's best player. There's Shaquille O'Neal(notes), whom Bryant doesn't want to see beat him to a fifth NBA title. Beyond the extraordinary greatness of James, the Cavs' toughness and tenacity are troublesome for the Lakers.
Anderson Varejao(notes) gets every loose ball and rebound, and Shaq allows the Cavs to defend the Andrew Bynums and Dwight Howards of the league without double teams. The Lakers' title defense has been nice and easy so far, lots of home games, but now losing against to the Cavs delivers Bryant a theme of complacency to hold over them. The physicality of Cleveland and Boston still frightens him. Truth be told, Artest has done little to change the finesse culture of these Lakers.
"The mentality has to change," Bryant said. "These are physical, tough-minded and hard-nosed types of teams and we have to make some decisions … That's not part of our DNA."
Bryant played a familiar old card when asked about the solution for the complacency that he believes contributed to this combustion. "I'll go into practice and strangle every single one of them."
Translated: He's going to be a bastard again. He talked of tough physical practice, of a vigilance that a defending champ must keep with all comers. Once, Bryant could drive these Lakers hard because he believed they were soft, accommodating and too reliant on talent over tenacity.
"Last year, we were probably a little hungrier and played a little harder," Bryant grumbled. "This year, they were the hungrier team. They want to win a championship and want to go after it, so they're playing with a sense of urgency that we played with last year. … Denver steamrolled us with their physical play. Cleveland on Christmas Day … "
He wanted to keep going, and assuredly he would with his teammates on the way to New York. Jackson had dismissed the Cavaliers as legitimate rivals, even refused to treat this game as vital with his decision to keep Bryant out longer in the fourth than the Cavaliers did with James. When James hit a three-pointer with five and a half minutes left to push the Cavs out, 83-80, you could see Bryant barking down the bench to Jackson. The coach ignored him, and waited until they had lost the lead for good.
For Jackson, the Cavaliers have won nothing to ever be considered a peer. Yet, there's a different dynamic for Bryant. He scored his 25,000th career point on Thursday night, earned his 12th career All-Star game and still LeBron James keeps coming and coming for him. He took the MVP a year ago, and more and more people insist that he's become the greatest player in the game. Yet Bryant still has those four championships, has Michael Jordan's six within his sights and maybe now LeBron James threatens to come for that too.
"The championship still goes through L.A.," James said. "It doesn't matter if you beat them four times, you still have to beat them in the Finals to take that trophy away from them."
No one understands that the way that Kobe Bryant does, and perhaps that spoke to so much of his seething on Thursday night.
Outside the locker room late Thursday, Kobe Bryant leaned against a wall and chatted with some friends. They were replaying the game again, where it had been lost and finally Bryant breathed out, shrugged and insisted the only truth that could hang over a late January night: "Well, we'll see in June."