- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- We got to see The Kobe Face on Sunday.
You know the one: lower jaw jutting out and pointed like the "V for Vendetta" mask, nostrils flaring like dual exhaust pipes, eyes peering ahead with the same focus as a parent searching the crowd of backpacks at after-school pickup looking for their kid.
At times this season, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have looked nothing like the championship team they were last year, but seeing that face again and the moment that spurred it was a reminder that things haven't changed all that much.
It's pretty surprising Sunday was the day The Kobe Face resurfaced because it didn't seem likely that it would need to make an appearance by how the game started out.
Members of the media took the Lakers' early 14-point lead in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz as an invitation to check out the puzzling Kobe Bryant all-white-wardrobe photo shoot from L.A. Times Magazine (I never knew hooded scarves existed before) in the second quarter.
But Utah was quietly staying within striking distance and pounced at the start of the fourth with Bryant out of the game, bombarding the Lakers' bench unit with an 8-1 run to start the quarter. The flurry all but erased Los Angeles' eight-point lead it built by shooting a ridiculous 60.3 percent through three quarters, and Utah threatened to end the Lakers' 14-game winning streak against the Jazz at Staples Center.
Before we could see The Kobe Face, The Kobe Body would have to go back in.
Bryant said it was tough just watching the lead collapse at the start of the fourth before adding, "But if it really got tough for me, I'd just check myself in."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson did the subbing for him, throwing Bryant back in the game with 7:32 remaining. Bryant took it from there, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 of the Lakers' final 15 points, to win the game 104-99.
It was toward the end of Bryant's rescue mission when The Kobe Face came out with 1:20 remaining in the game, making its 2010 postseason debut. He showed it after he hit a pull-up jumper from the foul line to put the Lakers up by three after the Jazz turned that eight-point deficit into a four-point lead just minutes before.
"I thought he felt the need to put it on his shoulders," said Jackson.
With the team on his shoulders and the scowl on his face, Bryant continued to "exert his next phase" of offense that Jackson said the team had been waiting for before Bryant went on to score 32 points in Game 6 in Oklahoma City.
Bryant finished with a game-high 31 points on 12-for-19 shooting, the first time he's gone for 30-plus points in consecutive games in almost two months (he did it on March 7 and 9 against Orlando and Toronto).
After looking mortal against the throng of defenders the Thunder threw at him in the first round, he treated each Utah opponent as an individual stage to showcase his skills, shooting 7-for-11 in isolation situations against the Jazz in Game 1, versus just 17-for-43 in iso's in six games against the Thunder. He went 7-for-9 against Wesley Matthews, 3-for-6 against C.J. Miles, 2-for-4 against various other individuals and 2-for-2 when he was double-teamed.
"We put ourselves in a little bit of a hole there in the fourth quarter and let them gain all the momentum," Bryant said. "At that point, you just got to buckle down. It's tough to change momentum when it's that late in the game."
It's not quite as tough when you have a momentum manufacturer like Bryant, a guy who is quite simply, the best clutch player alive today. Despite what people thought against the Thunder, when his injured right knee seemed to be slowing him down so much that his "clutchness" was becoming an irrelevant asset, his body is improving and his killer instinct is as healthy as ever.
"It's a lot better," Bryant said about his knee on Sunday. "I was able to move around. It was very encouraging for me to be able to move around and do what I wanted to do."
It should be encouraging for the Lakers as well. While the bench almost blew this game for the Lakers, their ineptitude changed the complexion of the game to the point where Bryant's best skill was needed and he got to sharpen it.
Bryant missed a game winner in the closeout game against Oklahoma City, in part because he was out of practice. Even though he hit seven go-ahead game-winning daggers during the year, he hadn't attempted one since that Orlando game on March 7. When the Lakers had a chance for a game-tying shot on the final possession on April 11 against Portland, Jackson drew up a 3-pointer for Pau Gasol rather than going to Bryant.
There was a false rumor floating around for years that Bryant used to sabotage big leads when he was in high school so he could get the thrill of coming through in a clutch situation at the end. I talked to Bryant's coach at Lower Merion, Gregg Downer, about it before the start of the playoffs. "When he was accused of choosing the dramatic route," Downer said, "that whole concept was ridiculous and couldn't be further from the truth."
Downer explained that his high school team wasn't a "juggernaut" that won by "40-50 points" and so Bryant merely found himself in tight games with the chance to perform.
Sounds kind of like the Lakers.
L.A. looked like it was going to run the Jazz out of the building, but if you've watched the Lakers at all this year, you know they're just not that type of team. They've yet to figure out how to knock a team down and keep them there.
The Lakers aren't just after a series-opening win against the Jazz, but a championship at the end of June. A couple of the teams out East -- the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic in particular -- have looked like they have it together a little bit more than L.A. at this point. But while the Cavs can claim the MVP in James and the Magic have the Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Howard, neither team has a player like Bryant who is at his best when a game, or a title, is on the line.
The Lakers will need The Kobe Face to show up again at some point in these playoffs. Sunday was as good a time as any to make sure the face still fits.
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Bryant showed L.A. and the Jazz his teeth and grit in the Lakers' Game 1 win.