- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- When trying to get their players to relish the fundamentals rather than squirt more mustard on the hot dog with the fancier play, coaches at all levels remind their guys that a dunk is not worth more than a layup. They both count for two points.
Yes, Bryant's driving layup with 9 seconds left over the outstretched arms of the 6-foot-9 Josh Smith proved to be the game winner.
However, it was Bryant's turn-back-the-clock dunk two minutes earlier -- when he blew by Smith and took off past the charge circle -- that might well have decided the contest.
"It’s more of a message to my team here to try to kind of have that will, that hunger to push through it by any means necessary," Bryant said after finishing with a game-high 34 points, which is right in line with the 34.8 points on 56.9 percent shooting he's been putting up over the past five games. The Lakers have gone 4-1 in that stretch to post a 30-30 record and get back to .500 for the first time since Dec. 28.
It sums up the rigors Bryant puts his 34-year-old body through in order to be able to perform at this high of a level in his 17th season. The ice baths. The strict diet. The pre-dawn workouts.
All to make himself able to compete night in and night out. And all to make himself compete the same way as the league's best player, LeBron James, even though James is six years his junior.
And Bryant hasn't relinquished the ability to seize momentum with a good, old-fashioned, game-changing jam.
"It definitely energizes all of us. Man, he’s jumping with power, too," said Steve Blake, who had the game-ending steal off an errant Smith pass following Bryant's offensive heroics. "You got to move on to the next play. But for that split instant you’re just like, ‘Wow,’ and you know he’s demoralized the other team for that moment. Sometimes it can take confidence away from the other team, even on the offensive end."
And we're seeing it more at this stage of his renaissance career then we did in previous seasons when it seemed like he was winding down.
Bryant now has 33 dunks in the Lakers' 60 games this season, good for an average of .55 dunks a night. That's a better dunking rate than the 28 he had in 58 games last season when he was 33 (.48 average). And the 38 he had in 82 games in 2010-11, when he was 32 (.46). And the 36 in 73 games in 2009-10 when he was 31 (.49).
"I was in my coffin a few years ago," Bryant said, gladly reminding the media that plenty of the pundits and scribes out there have soiled hands from prematurely throwing dirt on his grave. "Vino is out of the barrel."
"Vino" is the new nickname Bryant adopted after a writer for his advertising agency called him it in a text after Bryant had three highlight reel variety dunks Thursday against Minnesota.
As Bryant has gotten better with age, his new-look Lakers team also has improved as the season has progressed. They've won 13 of their past 18 games, with Bryant making a playoff guarantee to Sports Illustrated during that stretch.
"His belief in himself is huge," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said of Bryant.
The formula for Bryant's slam-dunk resurgence is part confidence and part physical dedication. It’s partly schematic, too.
"I can get to the rim a lot more because the floor is more spread," Bryant explained this week. "So I can attack the basket. And my passing and teammates knocking down shots opens the floor more for me, because I can get all the way to the rim."
The one teammate who will matter most in determining if these dunks by Bryant will lead to something more, or just end up in YouTube mixes for years to come, is Dwight Howard.
"It was a great dunk," Howard said. "He probably surprised himself with that one."
Even though Howard jokingly gave Bryant only an "8 or 9" out of 10 for the dunk, any praise for Bryant was positive to hear after Howard bizarrely refused to comment on Bryant's dunks after the Minnesota game.
That doesn't mean they're destined to pour championship champagne on one another, but even Howard seems to have accepted the recipe for how the Lakers are winning games.
"People are starting to see how tough we can be when we play together," Howard said.
For now, the rest of the league is drinking the "Vino" Kool-Aid right along with Bryant.
However, Bryant's 1996 NBA vintage seems to age better when stored along with some doubt.
"I got plenty in the tank, but if you all want to feel free to criticize and say I don’t, go right ahead," Bryant said.