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Kobe seems no worse for the wear


The calm part of Kobe Bryant's career is playing all 82 games last regular season, then 21 more in the playoffs through June 17, then putting off finger surgery, then the USA Basketball training camp and continent-hopping exhibition schedule, then the Beijing Olympics-cum-marketing convention until Aug. 24, then Lakers camp, then another 82 for 82 this regular season.

He never did find time for the recommended operation.

Calm is a relative term in Bryant's big-top world, of course, because a breakneck pace can't compare to all the craziness that came before. Basketball is the easy part. It's just that the past 19½ months have been basketball on a conveyor belt, with schedules whizzing past, the injury causing hardship, the milestone of turning 30 to prove he is aging, and the Lakers in regular lineup flux.

If a fourth championship comes this June, it would be uniquely impressive. The first undisputedly as "The Man," sure, but also underlined by the way Bryant handled the heaviest workload of a career that has now stretched 13 seasons, plus the equivalent of another two seasons in postseason overtime hours.

It's actually the most relentless clip for anyone in the league. Only one other person played in the Finals through to the last day of the Olympics: L.A. teammate Pau Gasol. Except that Gasol had 66 appearances in 2007-08 and Kobe had the full 82. (In his own meaningful follow-up to the Summer Games, Gasol appeared in 81 games this regular season, played 39 more minutes than Bryant, and played them at an All-Star level.)

Said Gasol of Bryant: "His toughness is off the charts."

Bryant's dedication to conditioning and preparation has always been unquestioned, but pulling off this two-season run, at this level, would be an accomplishment even by his lofty standards. The only concession from coach Phil Jackson has been to reduce the minutes of his star player by 2.8 minutes a game from 2007-08, but that merely got Bryant to 36.1 per -- still a big number, particularly since the Lakers routinely crushed opponents.

At least there was a downshifting for Bryant as the Lakers turned the Western Conference race into a rout this season: 38.3 minutes in January, 36.5 in February, 36.3 in March and eventually down to 33.5 in the April run-up to the playoffs. By that late stage, it was down to the Lakers pushing the Cavaliers for best record and home-court advantage throughout the postseason, but Jackson was also concerned about Bryant showing wear.

"This is a veteran that's been through a lot of seasons," Jackson said in the final full week. "We just have to shorten his minutes a little bit to keep his legs live."

The reduction: 31 minutes or fewer in three of the five games to close the regular season, capped by 29 on Sunday against the Grizzlies and 26 on Tuesday against the Jazz, the first-round opponent.

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"It doesn't matter," he said. "I could play all day, all night. When you have the team that you have, it's important to be smart about it. You've got other guys that have been playing well, it's important to continue to feed them the ball, let them play well. It does two things: It gets their confidence up and, two, I rest. Rest is always better than going full bore all the time.

"I'm able to pick my spots a lot more this season, even more than last season because of the guys that we have and how well guys have been playing -- Andrew [Bynum], Pau, Lamar [Odom], and so forth."

And the finger surgery he put off twice to ensure he would not miss any Lakers or Team USA games? He says the procedure is permanently off. He recently stopped taping the finger for games and, according to his prognosis, there are no plans for an operation.

"I don't see any point," he said. "It doesn't bother me at all, so ..."

There goes that hope for the rest of the playoff field.

That should have everyone down to, oh, Plan G to contain Bryant, somewhere after "Hope he runs out of energy" and just before "Form a human fence around the arena to make sure he doesn't get in."

Even the Lakers' lineup is getting more settled all the time, with Bynum having played in the final four games of the season following his knee injury, and now getting additional practice time in the off days. The Lakers went from the major adjustment of the Gasol trade last February to finishing without Bynum, to missing Bynum for 32 games this season. And now they may, finally, have a complete team in time for the playoffs.

Nonstop changes around the player with the nonstop schedule.

"He's a guy that has so much energy," Gasol said. "He's gifted like that."

Among other ways.