KobeBryant's shoulders shook as he sat watching the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 100-75 victory (RECAP | BOX) against the Magic in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday. His legs were bouncing involuntarily as he rested, and he watched the game as if he were still playing in it, yelling defensive assignments and pointing to the open 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 Stan Van Gundy said. But now the Magic know they are up against a Hall of Fame player who happens to be drawing from a powerful cocktail of several fuels. Just one year ago, Bryant was being embarrassed in the Finals against the hated Celtics, and it has been seven years altogether since his last championship before the divorce from Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant can pull from 13 seasons of experiences more varied than any other player in the league can imagine, and yet he remains near his physical peak at age 30.
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 Jameer Nelson. But Bryant had been resting in that time, and no sooner had he returned than the Lakers were assembling a 10-0 run so deliberate as to force two timeouts from the Magic bench. There was nothing they could discuss in their huddles to stop Bryant, who gave up all pretense of perfection and was just now beginning to play.
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 Brando on this game.
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 Courtney Lee -- who looked skinny while bodying up defensively against the wide shoulders of Bryant -- was replaced by Mickael Pietrus, who had defended aggressively against LeBron James in the previous round. Bryant faked left, right and back and forth again before spinning backward to drain a ridiculous 20-footer over Pietrus.
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 Pau Gasol or someone else to punish the Magic some more. At the defensive end, his energy was even more pronounced: Like a kid he would slap and slap at the ball, bouncing in a triangle to cover two perimeter players and still lunging inside to slap again at Dwight Howard, whose response -- a hard pivot -- launched Bryant flat on his back. But the defensive leadership spread throughout his team and stifled the Magic (29.9 percent from the field), with Howard limited to one field goal on six attempts.
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 Michael Phelps and A-Rod. Who doesn't grow up wanting to be a rock star?
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.
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