EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- At least once during each of his postgame news conferences during the playoffs, Kobe Bryant says something like this:
|Kobe Bryant appears to be looser and having more fun in his 14-year career. (AP)|
"I'm just a savvy old dog, I guess."
As Bryant, 31, stands two victories shy of a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, and six wins from a fifth championship, he is relishing the competition, enjoying the pressurized moments that summon his sadistic will to demoralize an opponent more than ever. Mostly, though, he is enjoying proving the doubters wrong.
He is luxuriating in a mental and physical state that perhaps suits him better than any other aura that has enveloped him during the 14 years he has been doing this. After a decade-and-a-half pursuing greatness, almost 15 years of fighting, Bryant has finally found his comfort zone.
Savvy old dog fits him like a championship ring.
So I asked the old man on Friday, after the Lakers held the first of two practices prior to bringing a 2-0 lead to Phoenix for Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, what it is about all of this that has gotten under his skin.
"It's assuming that something has gotten under my skin," Bryant said. "That's the perception. It's entertaining. It's not something that's gotten under my skin. It's something that I find kind of funny and enjoyable."
And that is?
"The notion that I'm old," Bryant said, "and that I won't figure things out. That's the part that's really funny to me. They should know me better."
With the new generation of stars sitting home watching the playoffs or getting ready for half the league to fawn over them when free agency opens July 1 -- and with the biggest of young guns, Dwight Howard, two losses away from joining them -- Bryant perseveres. The litany of injuries he's been dealt this season is like nothing he's ever confronted on the court. His knee, his back, his ankle, his finger, his knuckle -- none of it has stood a chance in hell against his will.
He struggled through the first-round series against Oklahoma City, taken aback by a young, fast team he didn't know well enough. What did he do? He figured it out. Like some bizarre new form of therapy -- to paraphrase an insightful question from Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Heisler -- Bryant volunteered to put his battered body between Russell Westbrook and the basket in Game 5 of that series and reversed the momentum just like that. He attempted only 19 shots in Games 4 and 5, then poured it on with 32 points in the closeout game.
There wasn't much to figure out against Utah; Kobe owns the Jazz, always has. He obliterated them with four straight 30-point games, shooting 52 percent from the field in the sweep.
Then came the Suns, whose eviction of Kobe and the Lakers from two straight postseasons in 2006 and '07 still fuels him. When Suns coach Alvin Gentry decided not to double-team Bryant in Game 1, he made him pay with a 40-point game. When Gentry sent more defenders and pressure Bryant's way in Game 2, Bryant dished out 13 assists, a career playoff high and the most by a Laker in the playoffs since Magic Johnson. Instead of forcing his will on the game, Bryant did what he has done throughout this postseason. The savvy old dog allowed Pau Gasol to do it for him.
"When playoff time comes around, the big guns have to step up," Bryant said of Gasol's play. "That's the only way your team is going to advance."
Gasol did all the damage, but it was really Bryant's performance that had Gentry dreading the short flight back to Phoenix after the game and the film study that would capture just how grim his task has become. Gentry had joked earlier, "Maybe we'll let him get 80 the next game and try to guard everybody else." Whatever in-flight cocktail Gentry used to soothe his pain -- vodka with a drop of cranberry, is my guess -- it probably didn't give birth to any better ideas.
"Guys, there's a reason why he's the best basketball player in the world," Gentry said. "Never one time have I underestimated him since he walked into the league."
So why does everybody else do it, 14 years later? Why don't they know better by now?
Bryant was asked once during the conference finals what he thought about LeBron James, the self-appointed King, getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Celtics -- his self-love free agency fest getting an unexpected head start. James eagerly embracing his free-agent status less than an hour after losing to Boston -- going on and on about his team of advisors instead of his actual teammates -- exposed him as the flawed superstar he is.
"I don't know," was all Bryant offered, followed by a long, awkward silence.
Bryant lives in that silence now, enjoying his basketball life more than ever. His game changes as he moves from the post to the perimeter and occasionally still toward the rim. But one thing never changes, or should. No one can call himself the King until Bryant is finished winning titles.
Which clearly, he is not.
During a radio interview with WFAN in New York this week, host Marc Milusis asked me about the Celtics and the Lakers, about Kobe and Pau, about Boston's Big Three, and about everything else that has created this crescendo toward Lakers vs. Celtics again in the Finals. At the end, he said, "We can't have an NBA conversation without saying a few words about the King ..."
I quickly interrupted.
"You mean Kobe?" I replied.
Malusis laughed, and it was the kind of laugh that suggested he thought I was kidding.
I wasn't. I, for one, know better.