LOS ANGELES – One by one, the Utah Jazz kept coming for him, grudgingly taking turns in a hailstorm of humiliation. They were some sorry sight, the most hollow of looks in those eyes, the most uncertain of backpedals in their steps. Kobe Bryant had it going now, had himself going for everything as the Jazz had reduced themselves to mere spectators to his genius.
Here was the night at Staples Center when the new No. 24 looked like the old No. 23, when Phil Jackson became so swept away that he greeted Bryant with the most un-Phil of congratulations at the end of Thursday's 52-point explosion – a high-five. Maybe most of all, this was the end of the uncertainty about the sturdiness of that surgically repaired right knee. Finally, Kobe was Kobe again.
Once again, they would chant "M-V-P! M-V-P!" here, and perhaps Bryant got the season's most valuable player debate officially started in Thursday's 132-102 victory. Sometimes, it can be easy to forget that the LeBron James vs. Dwyane Wade debate is still for second place, because Bryant is still the best player in basketball.
These were 52 points born out of efficiency – 19-of-26 shooting from the field, and 12 of 15 at the free-throw line – and so much of the momentum was generated out of the triangle offense, out of Bryant respecting the parameters of the Lakers' system. Eventually, it turned into something else – into Kobe playing and the world watching – but it could be forgiven because Bryant had elevated himself to a place of perfection that he had never gone before.
Across the end of the second quarter and all the way through the third quarter, 11 straight shots dropped for Bryant. Lamar Odom marveled over the way Bryant didn't just break the spirit of his defenders, but that of a team who happened to have the best record in the NBA.
"No one else can do that," Odom said.
Andrei Kirilenko had it the worst in the third, when Bryant scored 30 points on a perfect 9-for-9 shooting, when George Gervin's NBA record of 33 in the third could've been crushed had Jackson been willing to let Kobe play the final 36 seconds of the quarter. Pity poor Kirilenko, who as Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said "is our best defensive player." What's more, Kirilenko was an NBA all-defensive first-team selection a season ago and the long arms that held Bryant without a basket in the fourth quarter of a Utah victory over the Lakers last week in Salt Lake City.
When that game was over, Kirilenko began to fear this trip to Los Angeles, supposing that Kobe "will take it personally." Kobe took it so personally that he started inventing shots on Kirilenko.
It was one thing to dribble past him and dunk over the rest of the Jazz front line, and to keep shooting three-pointers over those endless 6-foot-9 Russian's arms. ("He must have shot the ball 15 to 18 feet in the air just to get it over them," Sloan marveled.)
Finally, Kirilenko had him stopped in the third quarter. He had spared himself some measure of dignity by clogging the baseline on a Bryant move. No, Bryant wouldn't throw this garbage to the rim playing so perfectly, wouldn't mire his Picasso with this kind of finger painting move. Only he did.
"You know," Bryant would say with a sly smile later, "I knew I was feeling it when I hit a one-leg runner – fading away."
That's what he did, a one-legged pirouette with him thrusting his body backward on the baseline. Bryant makes a lot of amazing shots, but this transcended reason. "It's just that I've never taken that shot before – outside of growing up as a kid playing in the backyard," Kobe said.
Eventually, Kirilenko would give way to Gordan Gircek and Deron Williams on Bryant in the third quarter, and resistance would be futile. Asked the last time that he felt so invincible, so perfect, on the floor, Bryant shrugged and said, "In a video game – playing PlayStation."
At the end of the night, the torched Kirilenko marched out of the visiting dressing room without a word and with his eyes straight ahead. Sloan was standing there, talking, grumbling, "If I'm guarding him, I would've gone out with six fouls," the coach said. "For crying out loud, I don't think it shows a lot of toughness to let him shoot over you."
As Bryant has gotten his knee back under him, several NBA scouts have been impressed with the way that he's trusted his teammates. It began to manifest itself late in the Lakers' playoff push last season, when Bryant's shots and scoring slowed and the victories started to stack up with team balance.
"Last year, he was so ball hungry in the triangle, he would literally chase it down on offense," one Eastern Conference scout said. "It was Kobe vs. everyone. This year, he's much more accepting of his teammates, of his role in the triangle."
Which is what has impressed the coaching staff and teammates: Kobe's willingness to accept the fact that the rest of the team has closed the learning curve on the triangle offense. This is a three-year plan with Jackson, a belief that the Lakers could be championship contenders by next season. Suddenly, it isn't so preposterous.
So much of that depends on the development of 7-footer teeny bopper Andrew Bynum, who has rapidly developed into a force for the Lakers. In an hour film session the other day, Jackson showed the Lakers how delinquent they were feeding Bynum the ball. Get it to him, he implored. As much as it's about Kobe with the Lakers, it's about surrounding him with the proper parts like Jackson did with Jordan in Chicago. Once Jordan learned to trust his teammates, Isiah Thomas of the old Pistons said, it was over for everyone.
Here and now, Kobe had to wait for the kids to grow up, had to wait for these strangers to the triangle to learn all of its complexities. In the end, this would be one of those nights that remind them of all the rewards that could await someday, the chance to be a championship contender with the best player in the sport on the Lakers’ side.
"We were within the offense tonight," Luke Walton said. "We were definitely all looking for Kobe because he was so hot, but the thing about him is that he knows the game so well, knows the triangle so well, that he knows every way to get himself open out of it."
Walton would laugh that he remembered the way Bryant would see the Lakers down 10 points early last season and just "grab the ball and try to go one on four" because there was no way else for them to win a basketball game.
There won't be a lot of these 52-point nights out of Kobe because he doesn't need to do this anymore. Still, it's that old No. 23 in the new 24 that knows there are still going to be these times when his talent can't be held back, when his genius demands that he let the world know the greatest player in basketball still plays for the Lakers and still lurks in the championship shadows.