LOS ANGELES -- At 33, Kobe Bryant has already logged more minutes than Michael Jordan, played in more seasons than Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. His 6-foot-6 frame, slender compared to the NBA's modern stars, has absorbed injury-inducing blows to virtually every relevant part. He cracks jokes about his dwindling vertical leap. But on some nights, when the legs are fresh and the back is loose, when there is spring in the knees and juice in the joints, he can appear utterly ageless.
Staples Center is home to the collagen-filled and Botox-infused, or so the stereotypes go, but Bryant is the rare Hollywood icon who naturally defies time. In Game 2 against Denver on Tuesday night, he was once again the teenager with the afro, rising over 7-foot Kosta Koufos for a baseline jam, blocking 6-9 Al Harrington from behind on a fast break, tossing 26-year-old Corey Brewer aside like a used Gatorade cup. On one drive, he spun through the Nuggets entire front line, finishing with a finger-roll. Bryant scored 38 points in a 104-100 win, helping the Lakers take a 2-0 series lead. And while he was not always efficient, he was relentlessly active. "You've got to go after it," Bryant said. "You've got to go get it."
He was referring to his sixth championship, once a pipe dream, and now at least an outside possibility. The arrival of Ramon Sessions, the emergence of Andrew Bynum, the improvement of Pau Gasol and the preparation of Mike Brown have infused Bryant with energy unseen in the past year-and-a-half. "He knows he has players around him who can get that next ring," said Brown.
Denver plays at the fastest pace of any team in the post-season field but they have not been able to keep up with the lumbering Lakers, who have yet to trail in this series. The Nuggets may need to reconsider their defensive strategy before Game 3 on Friday. They tried to single cover Bryant with Arron Afflalo, who grew up in nearby Compton, watching the Lakers. Afflalo idolized Bryant, so much so that some of his teammates in Denver call him "The Rattlesnake," a counterpoint to the Black Mamba. On Tuesday, the Mamba bit the Rattler with a diverse sequence of tricks he has honed over 49,000 minutes in the NBA: the double-clutch jumper, the reverse spin in the lane, and the one-legged fade-away he poached from Dirk Nowitzki. "I improved his move," Bryant said with a smile. "I can shoot mine from the three-point line. He can't do that."
Bryant was 14-of-22 through three quarters and obviously exhausted, making only 1-of-7 in the fourth. Still, he came away with the crucial swipe of Kenneth Faried in the final minutes, racing the length of the court and setting up a Bynum dunk with a wrap-around pass behind Danilo Gallinari. "I just had to get the ball," Bryant said. "I don't know who was under the basket. I just pushed them out the way."
Like the television audience, the Lakers can sense when Bryant is about to uncoil, and they predicted this performance. In recent days, Brown heard Bryant's voice, louder and more constant, exhorting Sessions to attack, Gasol to post up, Bynum to duck in. The relationship between Bryant and Bynum, once strained, was solidified at the All-Star Game in Orlando, where they spent all their free time together. "We didn't really care about the other guys," Bryant said. As disappointed as Bryant was by the Derek Fisher trade, it forced him to assume a larger leadership role, and Tuesday he was flexing at Gasol in a timeout, lecturing Bynum after a turnover, and standing alone on the bench when the second unit scored.
Bryant racked up 31 points in Game 1, but was overshadowed by Bynum's 10 blocks and triple-double. The landscape has obviously changed in L.A., where Bynum is now seeing the double teams and Bryant is enjoying the space. Time will eventually out-pace Bryant -- NBA defenses are counting on it -- and he knows he does not have many chances left at a championship. That's why he sat out seven games in April with a bruised shin, even though he despises missing time in the regular season. It's also why he skipped the finale at Sacramento, when he was just 38 points short of the scoring title. "He changes," said Sessions. "There are no smiles. He is all business."
He is surely eyeing Oklahoma City, a potential opponent in the Western Conference semifinals, already up 2-0 on Dallas. The Lakers typically toy with first-round foes, but Bryant acknowledged a different approach. They must close Denver quickly to earn Bryant more rest, so he can deliver more of what he did Tuesday: in-your-face dunks, come-from-behind blocks and end-to-end trips back in time.