Kobe Bryant takes it even higher

LOS ANGELES -- And for his next trick, Kobe Bryant will ... ?

The Los Angeles Lakers are still on the outside of the Western Conference playoffs. Friday's 118-116 overtime win over the Toronto Raptors brought the Lakers back to the right side of .500 for the first time in three months. And even if they do make the playoffs, who knows how much gas will be left in the tank after they've had to fight so hard just to get here.

But however this star-crossed Lakers season ends up, watching Bryant these past couple of games has been something to behold. Not since Jerry West in 1970 has a Laker posted back-to-back 40-point, 10-assist games.

Friday night, Bryant put up 41 points and 12 assists, including three 3-pointers in the final 1:41 of regulation and what proved to be the game-winning dunk with 10.6 seconds left in overtime as the Lakers came back from 15 points down against the Raptors.

That came just two days after Bryant had 42 points and 12 assists to lead the Lakers' comeback from a 25-point deficit to beat the New Orleans Hornets on the second night of a back-to-back on the road.

From a biographical standpoint, they are just two more fabulous 40-point games to add to the ledger.

Bryant has had better scoring streaks. In 2003, he put up 40 or more in nine straight games. In 2007, Bryant scored 50 or more in four straight games.

And yet these past two games still felt special. Unprecedented, even for him.

Because of how important they were to the Lakers' flickering playoff hopes. Because of the 12 assists. Because he's 34 years old and flat out shouldn't be able to dominate this way anymore.

Because, sometimes you just know it when you see it.

"It's been a long time since I've seen something like this," said veteran Lakers forward Antawn Jamison. "I've played with LeBron [James] for a little bit [in Cleveland] when he'd get it really rolling, but this? This is different.

"At shootaround this morning, he was struggling just to come out. It just seems like the more you beat him up, the more he focuses. Mind over matter."

James is probably going to run away with the MVP award again this season. He should. His play has been transcendent.

But after watching the way Bryant has played these past two games -- and really since the All-Star break -- you have to at least bring up his name in the conversation. Which, in and of itself, is saying something considering how disappointing the Lakers have been this season.

"He's not from this planet," Lakers guard Jodie Meeks said. "He would be my vote for MVP. This team has gone through a lot of turmoil. Similar to the Heat two years ago, but I don't even think they went through this much."

So much of the Lakers' woes this season have been self-inflicted, it's hard to appreciate much of what Bryant has been able to do.

You look at a game like Friday's and wonder how in the world they could let themselves fall behind by 15 against the Raptors after climbing out of that impossible hole in New Orleans two nights earlier.

You look at Bryant's line and focus on the nine turnovers.

You see the wonderful effort Dwight Howard has been giving, especially on defense, since the All-Star break and wonder how differently the Lakers' season would be if that had been there from the start?

All that's undeniable. But so is the brilliant play Bryant has summoned from the depths of that intensely competitive soul of late.

Who knows how he's doing it or how long he can keep this up.

"Hell if I know?" Bryant said. "I have a determination where I don't think anybody that I line up against on any given night, I don't think they're going to be able to out-will me. I just refuse to believe that."

Somehow he has managed to play desperately and cerebrally. Equal parts relentless assassin and maestro.

Take his dunk in the last 10 seconds of overtime that sealed the win. Bryant dribbled at the top of the key just long enough for the Raptors' plodding center Aaron Gray to get too close to him.

"Once that happened, I can just go around him," Bryant explained. "And then he kind of becomes a screen for my defender."

It gets better. As he turned the corner, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry had to decide whether to leave his man and step into the lane.

He stayed home and reached in, leaving the lane open for Bryant to dunk the ball with two hands as the Raptors were slow to rotate on the back side.

Why did Lowry stay with his man?

"Because they know I'll make the pass," Bryant said. "With the game on the line, I'll make the pass."

They know it because he passed it earlier in overtime to Steve Nash, Meeks and Metta World Peace.
He set it up.

It's the kind of play only a player who has played a long time in this league could read. But as these things go, by the time you see it, your body can no longer do it.

Somehow, some way, Bryant can still do both. For how much longer, who knows?

But while he's still got it, it's a sight to behold.