LOS ANGELES -- This was a portrait of the teenager as an old man.
When he was in the game, he was always moving, always on the go. Yet he didn't appear to lose control. His Finals-career-high 40 points were scored on young legs that were under the control of a wise old mind. He knew where he was going and what he was going to do and everyone else -- teammates, opponents -- was reacting to him.
"I just want it so bad, that's all," Bryant said. "I just want it really bad. You just put everything you have into the game and your emotions kind of flow out of you."
After the game, everyone on both sides emphasized that too much should not be made of one enormous result. "It's disappointing, but it's still one win for them -- they don't get two for it," Orlando coach
They say youth is wasted on the young, but not in this case. Kobe is the equivalent of new hardware driven by 13th-generation software. "This is the best I've felt late in the season in my whole career," Bryant said. "I feel outstanding."
Bryant, who would flirt with a triple-double (finishing with eight assists and eight rebounds), began these Finals as if in pursuit of the perfect game, of blending his scoring abilities with the need to create for others. There were times in the first quarter when he would be looking over his shoulder at teammates even as he was launching his jumper. He seemed to view his own shotmaking as an afterthought.
That's why the Magic were able to take a 24-22 lead out of the first quarter, and in the second they pushed it out to 38-33 while drawing a burst of energy from the return of point guard
When you've played so well for as long a time as Kobe Bryant, and the memories -- good and bad -- have been absorbed as instinct, the need for thought is superfluous. It is a conceit. The NBA Finals are the closest thing to live theater that Hollywood will ever know, and Bryant knows better than anyone that now is the time for method acting. And so he went
He attacked, he raged; he went quiet and changed speeds and exploded. He came out of the pick-and-roll hitting his jump shots or attacking the basket. Rookie
The Lakers' five-point deficit turned into a 10-point advantage at halftime, during which Bryant plotted an early end to the evening. He scored 18 in the third quarter, on jumpers and drives, and when the defense collapsed on him in the corner, he would pass out to
All the while, Bryant never looked like he was enjoying the evening. "My kids call me Grumpy, from the Seven Dwarfs," he said. "That's how I've been at home, just a grouch."
Yet this was the setting of which he must have dreamt as a teenager turning pro 13 years ago. The Staples Center audience was relaxed and serene in the run-up to the game, so confident was it in its star; the arena hillsides were peopled with yellow shirts, like dandelions. The play on the floor circulated around Kobe like music conducted with a few flicks of the wrist and some flailings of the arms, and during the timeouts a commercial for a video game featured him as the lead singer of a rock band backed up by
The sure way to beat the Lakers is to box in Kobe and beat up the rest of them, and Orlando isn't built for that kind of fight. Are the Magic really going to be able to outshoot Bryant for four wins in the remaining six games? And so the sense now is that the Lakers can lose only if Bryant relaxes, if he celebrates too early or betrays his focus.
With that in mind, he was asked whether he will be expecting a better effort from Orlando in Game 2 on Sunday. "We'd better be," Bryant said. "We talked about it a little bit after the game, and we'll talk about it at length tomorrow. We'll be ready."
Of course they will, because so will he.