Kobe's Special Delivery a Pain in the You-Know-What for Suns
When the dust settles on Bryant's brilliant career and the highlights all have been spliced together, this one certainly will make it.
With 34.2 seconds left Saturday night at US Airways Center, the Lakers guard put up a 23-foot jumper right in front of Phoenix's bench with Suns forward Grant Hill practically doing chin-ups on his forearm. It didn't matter.
Bryant made the decisive bucket that would lead his team to a 111-103 win over and a third straight trip to the NBA Finals. Before Bryant ran back up court, he gave Suns coach Alvin Gentry a pat on the butt, as if to say, "Nobody can stop me.''
It was similar to when Jordan hit his sixth three-pointer of the first half for Chicago in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals against Portland. With the Bulls on their way to the second of six titles, he simply shrugged for the camera.
"After I knocked down the shot, I just heard (Gentry) mutter something like, 'That's B.S., you know,''' said Bryant, giving his version of the shot that put the Lakers up 107-100 and on their way to securing a 4-2 win in the Western Conference finals. ''Something to that effect about the shot. Just made me smile.''
As for Gentry's version, "I said, 'Good defense. (Bryant) said, 'Not quite good enough.' ... He just patted me.''
Literally, it was a pat, which was then followed by Bryant spreading his arms like an airplane as he flew back to the bench following a Suns timeout. Figuratively, Bryant punched the Suns in the gut throughout the series, earning the Lakers a Finals berth against Boston, starting Thursday in Los Angeles.
Bryant, a guy who a month ago was walking around like Chester on "Gunsmoke'' due to a sore right knee that needed to be drained, scored a game-high 37 points Saturday. He averaged a staggering 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the series while shooting 52.1 percent.
"I always thought he was the best player in basketball,'' Gentry said. "He didn't do anything in this series against us to make me think otherwise.''
Last Monday, Gentry called Bryant, "The best player that ever played the game.'' That would make him presumably better than Jordan.
Of course, the Suns still were playing the Lakers then and Gentry sure wasn't going to give Bryant any ammunition. He was asked flat out after Game 6 if Bryant is better than Jordan.
"I'm not going to get into that. I might have to work for the Bobcats some day,'' said Gentry, referring to Jordan now being Charlotte's owner. "I'm not saying that.''
Let's hold off on that debate until later in the decade. For now, Bryant has a chance to pick up a fifth ring, which would put him one behind Jordan.
Bryant, like Jordan, always looks for things to motivate him. And the media might have helped even more in that regard by noting after Saturday's game that, while he's done plenty in his career, Bryant never has beaten the Celtics in the Finals.
Bryant's only chance came two years ago. But the Lakers fell 4-2, falling by a humiliating 131-92 margin in Game 6, a loss that fueled them throughout last season, when they beat Orlando for the title.
"The challenge is to win the championship,'' said a very serious Bryant. "The Celtics are in the way. They feel the same way about us. Obviously, this is a matchup, it's very easy to talk about. There's a lot of things that people can write about and talk about. It's a sexy matchup.''
To heck with "Where Amazing Happens,'' perhaps Bryant just gave the NBA some new promo material for the Finals. It's the NBA's "Sexy Showdown.''
One thing is for sure: the Lakers figure to look a lot better walking down the pregame catwalk this time than in 2008.
Two years ago, the Lakers didn't have center Andrew Bynum in the postseason due to a knee injury. Bynum is hurting now due to another knee injury, but he was good enough Saturday to total 10 points and six rebounds.
The Lakers also played the 2008 Finals without defensive stalwart Trevor Ariza, who had a broken foot. Ariza since has bolted to Houston, but he has been replaced by defensive stopper Ron Artest, who also found time Saturday to score a surprising 25 points.
"I think, obviously, if we'd had Trevor's contributions and my contributions, we would have reflected it,'' Bynum said of the result perhaps being different. "But there's no excuse.''
Also, the Celtics have gotten two years older since then. Meanwhile, Bryant, listed at 31, apparently has gotten two years younger.
How else can one explain how brilliant he's been this postseason? And you know Bryant will be intent on trying to make up for the 2008 Finals, when he was pedestrian by his standards, averaging 25.7 points while shooting 40.5 percent.
"He's going to be extremely motivated,'' Bynum said. "He's going to be in attacking mode throughout the series.''
That sounds familiar. Throughout this series, even when Bryant was piling up assists, he was attacking like only the Dendroaspis polylepsis can. That's the scientific term for the snake providing Bryant's "Black Mamba'' nickname.
Bryant, who had just two assists, wasn't doing too much passing Saturday. He obviously knew it was a close-out game and, when the Suns cut an 18-point deficit to five midway through the fourth quarter, Bryant knew it was time to take over.
Bryant scored 11 points in the final 4:33, including nine in the final 1:59. His barrage included three jumpers and five foul shots. His jumper over a fine defensive player made his foe look like Grant "Mole'' Hill.
"Kobe is so good he makes incredible normal for us,'' said Lakers forward Lamar Odom. "There's a couple plays where he trusted us and we didn't come through and he decided to take the game over. He spins away from a double-team, leans back and hits those medium-range jumpers. He uses his footwork to free himself when he's double-teamed. There's not too many players ever in the history of the NBA that can make those plays.''
One, obviously, is Jordan. And while Bryant continues to chase Jordan's ring total, he has joined him in the body gesture wing of the Hall of Fame.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson.