PORTLAND, Ore. --
It's like watching an undrafted guard work his way into a rotation of guaranteed contracts. That's how hard Bryant has been working to tip over the past in creation of a pedestal for himself. He is the most talented player in the world and he's playing with an underdog's mentality.
Here Tuesday night, his Lakers lost 112-103 to a young team with no more than a week left to its season. When Portland led by 16 late in the third quarter, Bryant could be seen clapping on the bench, trying to raise enthusiasm. After a timeout he scored the next 10 points, on a jumper, a three-pointer, a dunk in transition and three free throws.
What he heard at the foul line was: "Kobe shucks! Kobe shucks!'' Or something a little more vile.
This was not the kind of greeting
Despite three championships he won alongside
Make no mistake: Bryant now has more in common with Jordan the old champion than he shares with the young Jordan who was criticized in his early years as a flawed scorer, a hollow star. While Jordan needed to learn how to lead a championship team, the truth back then was that he lacked players who could be so led. The same has been true for Bryant. It's no coincidence that he suddenly appears more mature amid the sudden improvement of center
I said it early this season and repeat it now: Bryant was right to exert pressure on the Lakers last summer to demand an upgrade in talent. Would you rather that he cash his checks and accept first-round defeats without complaint? In which case he would be accused of not caring enough. As clumsily as he demanded improvements to the team, those demands in the strangest way showed that he was willing to further injure his own scarred reputation in exchange for winning more championships. And if he does win them, then his momentary demand to be traded last summer surely will be written off as a successful gambit.
For all of the criticisms he's earned over the years, it's only fair to point out that Bryant has made good on his end of last summer's uproar by playing the best basketball of his career. It started later last summer (such a summer this guy had) when Bryant cut back on his scoring and concentrated on shutting down the opponents' top scorers to help USA Basketball win its Olympic qualifying tournament.
"He probably heard a story about Michael or
On Tuesday, Bryant finished with 34 points and five assists on a difficult 11-for-26 night, but the Lakers lost by allowing Portland to shoot 50.6 percent against a defense that ranks No. 6 in that category. Near the end of the game, Bryant's shoulders slumped after
"We just weren't on the same page tonight defensively,'' he said. "We didn't do a good job collapsing, we didn't get out to the shooters, we didn't rotate. When we did rotate we fell a little short and gave guys open looks. We've got to continue to play through the play and get on the same page, and we will.''
The first question is whether Bryant's growth this season will earn him the MVP. I imagine that it will, by a small margin. A lot of people in the NBA believed the Lakers were on the verge of unloading Bryant and collapsing as a franchise; instead, he and coach
The second question is whether Bynum can return from his midseason knee injury to give Bryant a chance at the championship over the two months ahead. All Bryant asks is that Bynum defend the basket.
"That's it,'' Bryant said. "He'll be able to patrol that middle, especially against teams that have little guards that can get to the basket. If we'd just set him back there tonight, it would have been a lot tougher for those [Portland] guards to get to the basket. He's a legit 7-1 guy, a long-wingspan shot-blocker, so just that dynamic improves our team.''
As much as I'm interested to see how Shaq works out with Phoenix, how far