On Tuesday, West made headlines for saying what many others already have, that
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 (
With the Lakers dragging after a seven-game battle royale with the Rockets, Bryant played 43 breakneck minutes. With
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
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
"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.