Kobe puts L.A. on road to success

Back to business for Kobe Bryant on Monday, after going a game up on the Denver Nuggets and one-upping LeBron James over the weekend.

It's a virtual competition between Kobe and LeBron, dueling via the images on TV screens and the numbers in box scores. And they're both judged against the specter of Michael Jordan.

Phil Jackson was asked to compare Jordan and Bryant on Sunday and said: "Their strengths are a little bit different. But the similarities in their competitive drive is very much the same." Even Jordan has said he sees some of that element in Bryant, particularly the desire to separate himself from his contemporaries.

Bryant doesn't like to discuss these rivalries and even replied, "Are you serious?" when asked to compare his 41-point night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals to LeBron's 3-pointer in the final second in the East's Game 2.

"He does what he does in Cleveland; I do what I do here," Bryant finally acknowledged. "But it's good banter."

It's the essence of any great sports argument, isn't it? Wilt or Russell, Magic or Bird, LeBron or Kobe.

The contest is reaching the highest level now, road playoff games, the ultimate test. If Jordan is the standard, then consider the setting for most of his greatest work with the Bulls: the road. The Shot, The Shot II, the Flu Game, the Last Shot -- all of them were in the red road jersey.

Great moments at home are nice, and now LeBron has his game winner to go into the highlight vault next to those of Jordan and Kobe. LeBron also has that 25-point run in Detroit in 2007 to put in his road game archive.

In Game 3 at Orlando, he had an incredible stat line of 41 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. But he missed five free throws in the fourth quarter in a loss.

So the battle rages on, demanding new updates to the home page, and nothing LeBron has done on the road in these playoffs matches Kobe's effort in Game 3 at Denver given what was at stake.

Among Kobe's 41 points Saturday night was the go-ahead 3-pointer with just over a minute left. That goes onto the ledger with his eight-point overtime at Indiana in Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals, his 48 points and 16 rebounds to complete the sweep of Sacramento in 2001 and his winning shot in Game 3 of the 2002 NBA Finals against New Jersey.

This was the most meaningful of all. In all those other games the Lakers led the series, giving them a margin for error, with home-court advantage in their pockets if things went really foul. Saturday night was a pivotal moment, the series edge in the balance, with no guarantee that the Lakers would ever have as good an opportunity to get the win in Denver they needed to advance to the NBA Finals.

The greatest respond to the urgency of the situation. They love to be, as John Chaney once said, the only one in the room without a knife.

"I just think it takes a special player, special teams that can win games on the road at times when you have to or the stakes seem so high," said Derek Fisher, who once became a hero himself in four-tenths of a second at San Antonio. "To be able to hold together and concentrate and work through everything -- good, bad, momentum changes. I think as an athlete it's one of the most satisfying, most gratifying feelings there is."

"It's everybody wanting you to lose," Bryant said. "That's really the thing. The challenge of that moment. You come into a hostile environment -- at this stage of the playoffs, the teams that you play are all great home teams -- so it's that challenge of coming in here and doing something that few teams have done that excites me."

Bryant called the Lakers' 103-97 Game 3 win over the Nuggets one of the best victories of his career, in part because no visiting team had won in Denver since March 9, a run of 16 consecutive games that ended Saturday night. This wasn't accomplished with a bunch of championship-proven veterans, as were the Lakers' playoff victories in the three-peat days at the start of the decade. That's what made Bryant so happy even in his exhausted state Saturday night. Adding to his personal highlight collection won't matter if it doesn't result in a championship; a championship won't happen if his teammates don't respond to the challenges the way Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza did in Game 3.

Kobe was always going to be a central figure in these playoffs, but as they've progressed he's become increasingly fascinating. It's a storyline that goes back to the early Western movies, the older cowboy trying to hold off the young gunslingers. For Kobe there's LeBron on the other side of the country and Carmelo Anthony in the same saloon. Anthony has wowed people with a 28-point average in these playoffs, including a string of five consecutive 30-point games that ended Saturday. Bryant's numbers haven't seemed to resonate as much. He's averaging 0.6 points more than Anthony; yet it's only the fifth-best playoff average of his career. He also had a run of five consecutive 30-point games earlier in these playoffs.

This is Kobe's "Still D.R.E." postseason. It's as if he needs to remind people who he is and what he's done.

But after everything he's done -- in his career and so far this postseason -- there's still more to be accomplished. There's LeBron and Carmelo and Chris Paul and Brandon Roy and everyone else trying to get to where Bryant once was before he himself can return. There is the immediate threat of the Denver Nuggets, who can tie up the series with a victory at the Pepsi Center on Monday night.

"We have to go out there and match that energy that they'll bring to the court," Phil Jackson said.

The Nuggets are worried about getting too emotional. They had three technical fouls in Game 3, giving the Lakers three free points, plus too many rushed 3-pointers and another failed inbounds pass.

Anthony said the key is to "not try to put too much pressure on ourselves, because when we do that we tend to go out there tense and make stupid plays."

So while the Nuggets will battle their worst urges, Bryant will take on the Nuggets' physical defense, his own fatigue, LeBron's accomplishments, Jordan's legacy and a Pepsi Center crowd that vilifies him as much as any crowd does.

Thing is, Bryant probably considers it all a fair fight.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.