LOS ANGELES – For the better part of the evening, Kobe Bryant had bided his time, surveying the Houston Rockets' defense for cracks, holstering his own shot as the confidence within his teammates grew. Finally, the moment called for him.
Shane Battier buried a 3-pointer to press the Rockets closer to the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant took the ball on the left wing, measured the distance between him and Battier, and let fly with his 25-foot answer. Twenty-eight seconds later, Bryant skirted off a pick and quickly fired another 3-pointer over the head of Battier.
This time, Bryant paused to watch the shot slide through the net, holding his right hand aloft as he admired his work. The Rockets' shoulders slumped, but Bryant's daggers pierced far deeper than the opposing bench. Some two hours earlier, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers had jetted out of Orlando on the heels of a 29-point loss that James called "embarrassing." By the time the Cavs touched down in Cleveland, they knew this much:
Kobe isn't ready to concede the MVP race – or home-court advantage – to LeBron just yet.
The Lakers' 93-81 win over the Rockets, their 60th victory of the season, pushed them within a game of the Cavaliers with six left to play. Only three days earlier, the Cavs seemed to have all but locked up home court through the NBA Finals after the Lakers followed a loss in Atlanta with another in Charlotte. But that was before the Washington Wizards delivered one of the season's biggest upsets by beating Cleveland. The Cavs were further humbled by the Magic, trailing by as many as 41 points.
Home court is up for grabs. The MVP award might be as well.
Though the public race has been too close to call for much of the season – a Yahoo! Sports' fan poll taken two weeks ago drew more than 240,000 votes with Kobe and LeBron each netting 38 percent of the results – there was growing sentiment among the official media voters that James had done enough to keep Bryant from a repeat win. Few expected the Cavs to be this good, and if they finished with a better record than the Lakers then how could Bryant be the more worthy candidate?
If nothing else, Bryant's performance against the Rockets should now make voters hold onto their ballots until the final day of the regular season. The Lakers also beat the Cavs in both of their meetings, a talking point that figures to occupy the top line of Bryant's résumé should the teams finish the season with the same record.
"I think you wait until the end of the year and whoever has the better record, you give it to," Battier said. "The arguments are so parallel.
"I think [Dwyane] Wade is having a phenomenal year, but Kobe and LeBron are in a class by themselves. There's not one argument that's better than the other. They're both deserving. Just give it to whoever wins home-court advantage."
The MVP battle and the chase for the NBA's best record are the only two races worth watching over the season's final 1½ weeks. For all the talk about the fierce battle for seeding in the West, the gap in talent between Nos. 2 through 9 in the conference is far closer than the gulf between 1 and 2.
If the West is going to produce a serious challenger to the Lakers, it will have to wait until the playoffs because one hasn't emerged yet. The Rockets have persevered in a season of ridiculous challenges, but they don't have a single win over the Lakers. The San Antonio Spurs, who needed 126 points to beat the Indiana Pacers on Friday, hope only to get healthy. The Dallas Mavericks just lost to Memphis. The Utah Jazz lost at home to Minnesota. Golden State beat New Orleans. Portland and Denver have played well of late, but the Trail Blazers likely lack the experience to make that deep of a run into the postseason. Nuggets coach George Karl recently dismissed on a national talk show any notion that his own team is a legit championship contender.
"We're just trying to get out of the first round," Karl said.
The Lakers could always run into a surprise or two during the playoffs; the Boston Celtics were pressed into two seven-game series before reaching the Finals last season. So far, however, Kobe and his teammates have chopped down any and all West "contenders" to come their way.
Bryant has been particularly tough on the Rockets. He beat them with a 3-pointer with less than 30 seconds left in January then produced some more fourth-quarter heroics in Houston last month after Ron Artest taunted him.
Asked Friday what he did to rile up Bryant in their previous meeting, Artest smiled.
"I called him the worst player in the world," he said. "I told him he was the worst player I've ever seen in my life.
" … Some people won't talk to the guy who actually might kill them. I like to talk to the guy who likes to kill me."
Artest didn't say much to Bryant on Friday, but he also only guarded him for a few possessions. That assignment went to Battier, who unwittingly provided his own source of motivation for the Lakers. Last month, the New York Times Magazine ran a story by "Moneyball" author Michael Lewis detailing how Rockets GM Daryl Morey has innovatively used statistics when making player assessments.
"The Lakers' offense should obviously be better with Kobe in," Morey said in the story. "But if Shane is on him, it isn't."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson made sure Bryant read the story. "I told him about his penchant for taking on guys that contest him," Jackson said, "and, at times, making it mano y mano and taking us out of our game."
Bryant's reaction to the story?
"I enjoyed it."
The result was one of Bryant's better floor games of the season. He toned down his aggressiveness to set up his teammates, scoring 20 points on just 11 shots.
"He was efficient," Battier said. "That's a killer."
And when Bryant sensed the momentum turning, he rose up, hitting one 3-pointer then another, the second coming off a pick-and-roll that Battier called "the toughest shot in the game."
Bryant has built his career on such shots, and that's why Battier suggests voters wait until the season's final day to make their MVP selections. With six games remaining, with the playoffs beckoning, who wants to bet against Kobe?