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NBA's most cold-blooded closer remains utterly unmatched

PHOENIX -- In all probability, Kobe Bryant's collection of MVP trophies will remain at one. An award that requires otherworldly effort throughout an 82-game season is a young man's prize, one that the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo will fight for over the next decade. No, Bryant's 31-year old body won't allow him to sustain that kind of dominance. Nor should it. Bryant's body, ravaged by sprained ankles and broken fingers, is built for the playoffs, where the game's most cold-blooded closer remains utterly unmatched.

Consider Saturday night the latest example. After watching his team cough up an 18-point advantage for the second consecutive game, Bryant seized control in the fourth quarter. With the crowd whipped into a frenzy and a streaky Suns team feeling an injection of adrenaline after a flagrant foul by Sasha Vujacic on Goran Dragic, Bryant stepped up. With the lead whittled to three, Bryant spun around the right elbow and dropped in a 21-footer. And with L.A. nursing a five-point lead with 35 seconds left Bryant, wearing Grant Hill as a sweater, canned a 23-foot turnaround from almost the same spot. As Alvin Gentry stepped onto the floor to call a timeout, he patted Hill on the back and told his frustrated star good defense. Bryant stopped and fired back at Gentry, "Not quite good enough."

"What can you say about Kobe?" asked Gentry. "I don't know if there are words."

Gentry's right. Bryant's 37-point, six-rebound effort in Game 6 went beyond any language. He was dominant, but even dominating players can be contained when swarmed by multiple defenders. The only success the Suns had stopping Bryant was late in the third quarter, when Gentry bellowed at the referees not to let Bryant in the game because he hadn't reached the scorers table in time.

"Kobe is so good, he makes incredible normal for us [and] those that are around him," said Lamar Odom. "He spins away from a double team, leans back and hits those medium range jumpers. He uses his footwork to free himself while he's double-teamed. There aren't too many players in the history of the NBA that can make those plays. I always commend Kobe for his competitiveness, his preciseness, the way he studies the game and his goal as far as being the best player ever. There are not too many guys who want that responsibility but time and again he embraces the moment."

To win championships, even great players need help. And Bryant got it Saturday night. The much-maligned Ron Artest put on an offensive clinic with 25 points (on 10-of-16 field goals and 4-of-7 three-pointers) in 41 turnover free minutes. Indeed, if Artest were a quarterback, he would have wrapped up the game with a perfect rating.

"He's one of the very few guys that I have seen play that literally can will the ball in the basket," said Derek Fisher. "He has the ability to lock in on the rim."

Said Phil Jackson, "The basketball gods were on his side."

Fisher dropped in 11 points and Andrew Bynum scored 10 while providing a physical interior presence on both ends of the floor. Even Jordan Farmar chipped in with eight. The Suns didn't hand LA a victory; on a night that Pau Gasol (nine points on 2-of-9 shooting) and Odom (six points on 3-of-12) struggled, the Lakers were successful because everyone else stepped up.

So the NBA has its dream matchup: The Celtics and Lakers, two of the league's cornerstone franchises, meeting for the 12th time for the right to be called NBA champion. Officially it is a rematch of the 2008 Finals, but in some ways, these teams couldn't be more different. The Celtics have a revamped bench and three somewhat important starters who are a little longer in the tooth. The Lakers are older, wiser and have the physical Bynum and Artest to match Boston's bumping and bruising style.

"We aren't looking at them and lining them up against the team in '08," Fisher said. "This is the 2010 Finals. If we want to win it, we're going to have to work extremely hard and continue to make the sacrifices necessary."

Said Odom, "Everybody's looking forward to it."

In Boston, too. Last summer Jackson ran into Paul Pierce in a housing complex where his daughter lives. Pierce had a simple message for the NBA's most accomplished coach. Get back to the Finals, Pierce said, we want a piece of you.

"Here it is, almost a year later," said Jackson. "We have this opportunity, both of us, to renew this rivalry."

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