Kobe: 'I've been waiting for this moment'
This was a different Kobe. Not the jubilant kid with the afro who made his first NBA Finals appearance in 2000 or the one clashing with his coach, teammates and the district attorney's office of Eagle, Colo., in 2004 or the one basking in the adulation of an MVP award before the start of last year's Finals.
This was Kobe Bryant as I've never seen him before, so intense that he almost came off as subdued, the flames gone, leaving the glowing white briquettes.
It was about as uncrowded as his life outside his house will get this week, his immediate vicinity occupied by a couple of reporters, two members of his security team and his publicist. He stopped before he stepped into a nondescript van to head to an appointment. I had a couple of questions for him, but I was more curious about the vibe than the words.
Although he says, "I can play at a high level for another six years at least," I get the sense he's aware that this could be it, that there's no guarantee he'll arrive at such an opportune place again. He's in the Finals with home-court advantage over the Orlando Magic. He has a team that was two victories short of the championship last year intact. He's 30, old enough to know what he's doing, young enough to still be able to do it.
If he seems fatigued in these playoffs, just imagine next year, when he'll be coming off his second straight season in which he played until the last game in June. Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza both could be gone as free agents. Kobe could choose to go elsewhere as well if he opts out of his contract this summer. And one of those up-and-coming teams out there could elevate-and-arrive. Kobe could wind up "stuck" at three championship rings. That's the triumphant hallmark of a career for most players, more rings than Wilt or Moses or Doc or Jerry West or 32 other members of the NBA's 50 greatest players list from its golden anniversary in 1996. But in Kobe's case, three would seem short. It would mark promise unfulfilled. He could wind up mocked by a backhanded compliment, "best player never to win a Finals MVP award."
He'd need to get to six to stand on the same platform as Michael Jordan. Even four would say a lot, give him at least one to call his own, pull him even with teammate-turned-rival Shaquille O'Neal, keep Shaq from calling him out in any more raps.
Those are the stakes. This is the chance.
"For me, it's always been about 'this moment,'" Bryant says.
There's something else he has to realize. That even as much as these Finals are about him and his quest, so much of his fate is out of his hands. LeBron James did everything but operate the shot clock. He put up Wall Street bailout-big numbers against Orlando, averaged 38, 8 and 8, made a game-winning 3 with a second left and sank two free throws to force OT with 0.5 left -- and it still wasn't enough to compensate for teammates who shrank in the moment and a coaching staff that couldn't solve Orlando.
The Lakers didn't prove to be better than Denver until Odom and Ariza -- with cameos by Shannon Brown and Luke Walton for good measure -- showed they could play at home and on the road. And it took Bryant's recalibration to stop trying it all on his own. His and the Lakers' two best games (the two last games) came when he took his fewest field goal attempts of the series: 13 in Game 5 and 20 in Game 6.
"It's about how well we perform as a unit," Bryant says. "Our situation is different. Cleveland's offense, in a lot of ways, is like New Orleans'. LeBron is like a 6-10 Chris Paul. Our offense is an equal-opportunity offense. Everybody's touching [the ball], everybody's moving."
His words indicate a belief in the offense, something he didn't always hold. He's less rebellious now, not trying to do everything his own way and operate outside the lines, not the same player who once prompted a teammate to ask, "Doesn't he realize if he gives us the ball we'll give it back to him?"
Now Kobe envisions himself as a quarterback, scanning the defense and looking for the vulnerability he can exploit with the pass, aware of how the others can create scoring opportunities for him rather than his trying to do it alone against double- and triple-teams.
It's a story of progress, even if it isn't necessarily heartwarming. We tend to root for people who fall, not those who leap. Bryant yearned to separate himself from Shaq, the player so many in the league dreamed of playing with, in order to ascend the mountain by himself. Three the easy way was boring to him. It didn't validate what he did. He was the type who didn't want to walk across the street, he wanted to race you to the other side.
"Isn't competition great?" he once beamed after he had won a playful shooting challenge against a ball boy and forced the youngster to run some punitive suicides. "It makes everything better."
So maybe we should think of him as an entrepreneur who starts a business, sells it off and moves on to a new company. Only Bryant, much like Paul Allen post-Microsoft, has yet to find the same level of success.
We ought to count this as his third attempt to win a Finals series without Shaq because he did his best to nullify the big man in the 2004 Finals, taking 113 shots to Shaq's 84 while the Lakers crashed out in five games to the Pistons. In 2008, the Celtics never let Kobe or any of his teammates assert themselves. He was powerless.
Now he realizes he is only as strong as those who stand with him. If he wins, you don't have to consider it a victory for him, think of it as basketball restoring respect for the game. Even MJ had to play by the rules, giving John Paxson and Steve Kerr a chance to hit championship-winning shots before Jordan got his turn. For Bryant to win, he will have to play the game as Phil Jackson and Tex Winter envision it, with the ball moving around the triple-post offense, teammates working to create the best possible shot.
He has never looked so willing. Doug Collins likes to measure scorers' efficiency by dividing points by field goal attempts. A ratio of 1 point per shot is a victory for the defense. A ratio of 1.4 and above is a good night for the shooter. In Bryant's last two games against Denver he was at 1.69 and 1.75. Now it makes sense that the phrase he kept repeating was, "Just ready to go."
"I've been waiting for this moment for a while now," Bryant says. "Our opponent has played us extremely well. It's a contrast from teams that we've been playing the first three rounds. And we just have to be ready.
"It's a great opportunity. Last year was a great opportunity to get it done too, and we just weren't tough enough to get it done. I think this year we're a tough team, as we proved the first three rounds. This round's going to be about execution, defensive execution. Offensively, we can score with the best of them."
There's more to the game than just scoring points, lots of points. That was Kobe's M.O. three years ago. Now, he comprehends that less is more, even in the run-up to the Finals. Less talking, less emotion.