Bryant reintroduced competition to the All-Star Game, outscoring everyone with 37 points and beating the East in a 148-143 victory Sunday. "You could tell from the start he wanted to get the MVP," said Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire. "He was not passing the ball at all. That's Kobe."
He won his fourth All-Star MVP -- equaling the record of Bob Pettit -- but there seemed to be something more in this for Bryant, who is seeking a sixth championship in the final season of Lakers coach Phil Jackson. You could see it in the opening minutes as Bryant reached back to slap away the hand of Miami's Dwyane Wade as they ran the floor in transition, and later when Bryant stripped Wade's dribble from behind with a maneuver usually performed by Manu Ginobili. You could see it moments later when Bryant posted up Boston's Ray Allen before drilling a fadeaway jumper as if it was the third quarter of a playoff game.
Was Bryant maintaining his edge against rivals he may be meeting on this court in June? Kevin Garnett, who is as deeply competitive as Bryant, didn't dismiss the theory. "You should keep an edge regardless of whatever you're doing," Garnett said.
The contrast between the host and his guests was the story of the game. The Eastern starters lined up along the scorer's table and tossed chalk dust in the air in mimicry of LeBron James. Within seven minutes they were trailing 21-10, and the East would never overcome that deficit. "He went for it early," said East coach Doc Rivers of Bryant. "You could see the guys from here (in Los Angeles), they had a little more juice into the game. The problem with that is they were all in the West, and that became a problem for the East."
Others took a different view of the game than Bryant. The three players from Miami appeared to experience no friction while sharing the ball and the bench with four opponents and the entire coaching staff of the East-leading Celtics. "When we have a break, we don't bring all of that stuff with us," said Heat forward Chris Bosh. "We don't take our work with us."
So how did he explain Bryant? "That's Kobe," he said. "That's how Kobe is. I've seen him play (against) kids hard.''
There was a lot of "That's Kobe" talk going around Sunday as his peers made sense of Bryant's continuing impact. He has been at this now for 15 NBA seasons, and his impact remains invaluable. This could have turned into an unofficial dunking competition, but instead Bryant turned the exhibition into a game of serious moments. Of course it helped that he was on the court in the first quarter when Rivers chose to insert his quartet of Celtics all at once, turning the anthem of cheers into boos from the L.A. crowd. "I thought that was beautiful," Rivers said. "You knew they would not get a rousing ovation. Our guys got a good laugh out of it."
Did the last laugh go to Rivers? Looking ahead to the final two months, he limited Garnett to 8 minutes and Paul Pierce to 11. Each of the Miami trio would have played more than any Celtic if not for a sprained ankle suffered in the third quarter by Dwyane Wade that limited him to 20 minutes. Across the way Bryant was playing 29 minutes and shooting 26 times. "The fourth quarter, man, I had nothing left," Bryant said. "I exceeded my dunk quota for the game."
The evening peaked in the third quarter when James committed a turnover and chased the ball as it was relayed ahead to Bryant. He looked over his shoulder as if daring a challenge from James, and there were four hands around the rim as Bryant finished quickly. "I saw it coming and I wanted to see if I could avoid the LeBron chase-down," Bryant said. "I told him afterward, if I had tried to go over the rim, like get up, he probably would have blocked it with his armpit. So I just tried to be quick and time it up just the right way, and I kind of snuck it by him."
The East threatened a comeback in the final minutes as Garnett cheer-led from the bench and James accumulated 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But Bryant assisted Kevin Durant (34 points) on a crucial fallaway three to restore the Western lead to 142-135, and then he watched as Durant's clinching free throws with 5.2 seconds remaining finished the scoring.
As much as Bryant elevated the event, his rivals weren't going to let him celebrate without taking some heat. "I'm going to go with my teammate," said Bosh to endorse LeBron for MVP instead of Kobe. "He was more impressive. He had a triple-double -- he was passing as well as scoring."
They'll have another shot at Bryant March 10 when the Lakers go to Miami. Then June will be here soon enough, when Bryant will be hoping to do more of the same, but for a different kind of trophy.