Two good to be true

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Here is how the contest might unfold:

Kobe starts out on Bird and LeBron takes Magic. Magic is used to overpowering everyone he plays, but at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, LeBron is just as big and strong. Bird is clever with the basketball and his step-back jumper is un-blockable, but Kobe is in a class with Michael Jordan and Bruce Bowen when it comes to guarding people on the perimeter.

He doesn't let Bird breathe and doesn't give him the space to get off his shot. He is so quick that Bird can't set him up for any backdoors. Magic has to make the outside shot for his team to have a chance, but since he shoots a flat-footed jumper, the quicker James isn't going for any fakes and can keep a hand in his face. With James and Bryant being just as effective above the rim as below it, where Bird and Magic excel, they have a great advantage.

But you can't downplay pride, smarts and competitive nature, and because of that, Bird and Magic stay in the game. They actually run plays.

It comes down to one possession. The game is to 15, one point a basket and you have to win by two. It's 14-13 in favor of LeBron and Kobe and they have the ball.

LeBron checks it at the top of the key with Kobe on the left wing. The idea is that Kobe will get the ball on the move, keeping Bird off balance, and will then be able to take him off the dribble before Magic can drop off and help.

That's exactly what happens and ...

This is just imaginary, so no one will ever know what really would happen, but Bryant, who along with James is in one of the most interesting two-man MVP battles in a long time, thinks he knows.

"You've got to understand we've watched Larry and Magic their whole careers," a playful Bryant said after playing with James for two weeks last summer on Team USA in the FIBA Americas tournament. "We've emulated them and so we know what they like to do. Everything they did, we tried to do in the driveway. It would be fun. I think a lot of people would want to watch it, but we would definitely win."

James nodded his head in agreement.

Bird and Magic have yet to weigh in with their opinions.

The point, however, is that not since the days of Bird and Magic has the NBA been blessed with two players who have everyone talking about who is the best player in the league as much as Bryant and James have people debating the issue.

Leaving statistics out of it, and just looking at impact, Bryant and James are nearly unrivaled this season, and as different as they are in style of play, they are both expected to do the exact same thing every night -- figure out what their team needs and provide it.

James can be overpowering. Bryant is efficient. Both are spectacular. Bryant's Los Angles Lakers are better than James' Cleveland Cavaliers, but that shouldn't be held against either one. You have to play with the hand you're dealt.

You can argue all day long who is the best player in the NBA today, but when you stop getting overly excited by dunks, threes and no-look passes and remember the game is played at both ends of the floor, the discussion starts and stops at Bryant. He has the same mind-set on defense that he has on offense, playing the entire game with a "no one can stop me and I can stop anyone" mentality.

In comparing players, we often feel we have to find fault in one of them to boost the other, but in this case, we don't have to. Kobe is the best player in the NBA, not because James, who is second best, has any glaring weaknesses, but because Bryant is just that good at every facet of the game.

Take, for instance, Bryant's most impressive play in his 52-point performance against the Dallas Mavericks in the Lakers' 108-104 overtime win last Sunday. It was an offensive rebound on a missed Lamar Odom free throw with six seconds left in regulation, which assured the Lakers of getting into the extra period. Bryant saw Odom's release, judged where the ball would come off the rim and maneuvered around Brandon Bass to secure the rebound. It was a play that would go unnoticed most of the time, but a play perhaps only the best player in the league could make at that moment. No task is too small in Bryant's mind if it might even remotely contribute to winning.

Bryant, however, will be the first to tell you that in this fickle world, as Julian Sands said to Kim Raver on a recent episode of Lipstick Jungle, "It doesn't take much for a halo to turn into a noose." But Bryant is showing critics and doubters this season that his drive to win may be unparalleled. This may be the season in which he won't have to hear, "Kobe might be the best player, but ..."

Bryant is motivated by different standards than most. He won't say it, but he doesn't want to be recognized just as the best player in the league. He wants to be known as the greatest player ever. More important, he understands what that means and has done whatever necessary to keep himself on that path.

Two-on-two games are just for fun. What Kobe Bryant is doing on the court is for real.