Wednesday May 20th, 2009

Jerry West spent 14 years playing for the Lakers, 19 in the front office, most of his professional life serving as their ambassador. He is the man who graces the NBA logo, who gave the league Showtime, and who shrewdly traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in 1996 for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant.

On Tuesday, West made headlines for saying what many others already have, that LeBron James has surpassed Bryant as the best player in the NBA. It was not an original opinion, but coming from West, it had a little more bite.

Bryant said he was not offended by West's comments or even irritated by them. But on Tuesday night at Staples Center, he fired back in his own quiet way. Just as the Nuggets were threatening to steal Game 1 of the Western Conference finals (BOX | RECAP), and Carmelo Anthony was threatening to take ownership of Staples, Bryant showed that any debate over the NBA's best player is still in session.

With the Lakers dragging after a seven-game battle royale with the Rockets, Bryant played 43 breakneck minutes. With Trevor Ariza failing to keep up with Anthony, Bryant insisted on switching defensive assignments. And with the Lakers trailing by six points at the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Bryant scored 10 points to wipe away the deficit and deliver a 1-0 series lead. Anthony finished with 39. Bryant, in a vintage display of one-upsmanship, had 40.

Asked after the game about West, Bryant answered coolly: "I'll use it as motivation, certainly. But for years the challenge has been winning another championship. And that's the challenge that I've accepted. It hasn't been, 'Can you stay on top as the best individual basketball player?' That's not something that's driven me. It's winning another championship."

In order to reach that goal, there will have to be more 40-point nights, since the other Lakers are not giving Bryant much help. They were almost as ragged against the Nuggets as they were against the Rockets, with no player besides Bryant scoring more than 13 points. The Lakers literally stole Game 1 when Ariza jumped in front of Chauncey Billups and intercepted an inbounds pass with 29 seconds left and the Nuggets down by two.

With a chance to charge at the basket and finish off the game, Ariza instead backed out the ball and let precious seconds tick away. Bryant was the one who sealed the victory at the free-throw line, where he made 12-of-13, despite a dislocated finger that had to be popped back into place. "Kobe has unbelievable will," Ariza said.

Bryant started the game covering Billups, then J.R. Smith, but midway through the third quarter he told Ariza he would take Anthony the rest of the way. His exact words were: "You go guard Chauncey. I'll guard him." Bryant considers Anthony a close friend. He says he spent more time with Anthony at last summer's Olympics than any other teammate. But he was not about to be upstaged on his own floor.

"He's tough," Anthony said. "Everybody knows what Kobe can do."

The Nuggets' newfound maturity will be tested from here on out. They outplayed the Lakers for most of Tuesday night, but missed 12 free throws, blew a fourth-quarter lead and were left lamenting an opportunity lost. "We're going to continue to fight," Billups said. "We're going to continue to fight every single game. We're not going to go away."

Neither is the debate over the NBA's premier player. Bryant insists he wants to be regarded as champion more than leading man. But he is three victories from the Finals, and a possible date with James, where he can prove that he is still both.

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