By Lee Jenkins
May 18, 2010

LOS ANGELES -- For most of this season, the MVP chants at Staples Center sounded weary and contrived, remnants of a bygone era kept on display for nostalgia's sake. The chants would start after every trip to the free-throw line but quickly wane and die, as if the locals were repeating those three letters out of habit and not because they really believed what they were saying. Sure, Kobe Bryant was still one of the best couple of players in the game, but even in Los Angeles everybody knew that the MVP resided in Cleveland.

The dynamic has changed, as it always seems to do with Bryant, going from hero to villain and hero again in record time. With LeBron James back to playing mogul and Bryant back to playing champion, the chants are coming with conviction once more.

After Game 4 of the first round in Oklahoma City, Bryant appeared old and injury-prone, the Lakers on the verge of an ignominious upset. Since then, the Lakers have not lost and Bryant has scored 30 points per game, for the second year in a row changing the MVP conversation after the ballots have been counted. Asked for the secret ingredient to his latest metamorphosis, Bryant said with a facetious grin: "Old age."

Bryant was taking a well-deserved dig at those who dismissed him just a few weeks ago, but age is indeed a part of this. Bryant, who is famous for practicing as hard as he plays, took the past week off to rest his injured finger and knee. For someone who rarely acknowledges his own mortality, and insisted on remaining in the lineup this season despite various ailments, it was important to admit that he needed a little rest.

With the Lakers clinging to a seven-point lead at halftime in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns, Bryant recognized that his break was over. He scored 21 points in the third quarter, en route to 40 for the game, and the Lakers throttled the Suns 128-107 on Monday. This was not Bryant jacking jumpers or parading to the free-throw line with generous calls, either. He needed only 35 minutes and 23 shots to account for his 40 points, perhaps the most efficient performance in his playoff career.

"The shots he was making tonight," said Suns coach Alvin Gentry, "you just can't do anything about."

Gentry lamented his team's porous post defense and allowance of dribble penetration, but he had no criticism for Grant Hill, the unfortunate soul assigned to an unstoppable force. Bryant made three 3-pointers. He made a contested fadeaway at the first-quarter buzzer. And on a give-and-go with Pau Gasol, he took a no-look pass and appeared to levitate behind the backboard before flipping the ball through the basket. This is what Bryant had in mind on that unforgettable afternoon in Phoenix three years ago, when he mourned a third straight lost season and instructed his front office in no uncertain terms to "Do something and do it now."

Since that touchstone moment, which would come to define both Bryant and the only organization he has known, the Lakers' roster has changed dramatically. Derek Fisher returned from Utah. Ron Artest fled from Houston. Most important, Gasol arrived gift-wrapped from Memphis. But there was one player on the court that day in Phoenix who was clearly worth keeping around. It was just a line in a box score, but Lamar Odom scored 33 points with 10 rebounds in Game 5 of the first round of the 2007 playoffs against the Suns, keeping the Lakers respectable then and showing he could put them over the hump now. At 6-10, Odom is the rare player who can tower over the Suns, but also run with them. He embodies the Lakers' overwhelming size advantage without sacrificing too much speed.

The Suns enjoy one obvious edge on the Lakers in this series and it's their bench. The Suns have Leandro Barbosa and Channing Frye to go along with upstarts Jared Dudley and Goran Dragic in their second unit. The Lakers counter with Odom and not much else. On many nights, it's not enough. On Monday, it was plenty. In the first half, Odom outscored the entire Suns bench and he finished with a playoff-high 19 points and 19 rebounds.

If Odom can ever sustain this effort, the Lakers will be able to live with center Andrew Bynum's reduced minutes, the result of his own knee injury. "I told myself if I was going to have a bad game, I was going to have a bad game swinging," Odom said.

That's often been Bryant philosophy, swinging at everything until he connects. Learning how to pick his spots is just one more happy side effect of old age.

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