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Kobe Bryant keeps getting better, has Lakers in striking distance

The overwhelming force of basketball now is not Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony or Blake Griffin. It isn't even LeBron James, whose dominance is so thorough, so commonplace, so expected that nothing he does is a surprise anymore.

The story of this NBA season has become Kobe Bryant, who is not supposed to be able to do what he is doing. He was not supposed to be able to delight us this way, captivate us with a vengeance that is singularly his and skill that does not erode with age, but only continues to blossom.

What can you say? What are you supposed to think when a man in his 17th NBA season, 34 years old with more than 53,000 regular season and playoff minutes on his odometer gives us a performance like he orchestrated Friday night? What can you say when Kobe Bryant keeps getting better before your disbelieving eyes?

Thank you?

That about covers it, if you want to convince yourself that's enough.

Bryant was brilliant again Friday night, saving the Lakers for the second straight game in this crucial stretch of their season -- the monumental climb past .500 and beyond, back into contention for the playoff berth Bryant recently guaranteed would be achieved.

"It feels good to be back in striking distance," Bryant said after turning logic and humanity on their respective heads with 41 points and 12 assists in a 118-116 overtime victory over the Toronto Raptors.

Oh, and Bryant had nine turnovers, too, but who besides Bryant himself was counting?

"Totally irresponsible with the basketball," he said.

With play after improbable, desperate play, his chin jutting out through the pure exhaustion and aggression of it all, Bryant put the Lakers back over .500 (32-31) for the first time since Nov. 20. He willed the Lakers back from 15 points down, two nights after willing them back from 25 points down in New Orleans with another vintage Bryant performance, circa 2002.

He hit two deep 3-pointers late in the fourth to force overtime, pump-faking two defenders almost into the front row on one of them. In overtime, sizing up the defense and eyeing the shot and game clocks from the top of the key, Bryant waited for Raptors center Aaron Gray to rumble toward him for a double team. Bryant waited until Gray's momentum was irreversible, then raced around the corner and toward the lane -- like this was the old rookie-sophomore game at 1997 All-Star weekend in Cleveland -- and darted through the paint for a two-handed dunk that put the Lakers up for good.

"I just waited until I saw daylight," Bryant said in the TV interview on the court afterward.

Because of Bryant -- and only because of him and his unrivaled pursuit of winning and greatness -- the Lakers can finally see daylight now. Nineteen games to go for the Lakers, and a half-game between them and the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference. A half-game between Bryant and the playoff trip he promised.

Bryant has somehow willed the Lakers toward the light, in ways that didn't seem possible -- and still don't, even though we're watching it happen. Thirty or more in seven of his last eight games? Forty or more in three of them? Arguably one of the three best statistical seasons of his Hall of Fame career? Now? At 34?

I wasn't alone in doubting that we'd get any more nights like this, any more stretches like this or seasons like this after all the greatness we've gotten from Kobe Bryant. Never has it been so good to be wrong.

 
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