For an award as subjective as most valuable player, sometimes you need to rely less on statistical analysis and more on visceral feelings.
The numbers say LeBron James should be the NBA's MVP. The standard definition of the best player on the best team leads you to Kevin Garnett. But there are times when the MVP award is captured in a moment. And no one does moments like Kobe Bryant.
He had two more of them Thursday night. Not the super-dramatic, clock-running-down, how-did-he-make-that-shot moments. Just the type of things MVPs do.
The Utah Jazz were playing zone defense. But either some of them didn't realize it or Kobe refused to acknowledge it, because you're not supposed to do what he did against a zone: He blew by his man in 3-point territory and got all the way to the basket for an uninterrupted dunk. (Too late, Andrei Kirilenko.)
On the Jazz's next possession, they lost the ball and it wound up in Bryant's hands. These things have a way of happening to the best players, the same way the puck always seemed to find its way to Mario Lemieux's stick. Bryant started on a 3-on-1 fast break and pulled off a move straight from the old "Magic Johnson -- Always Showtime" video. Bryant jumped in the air, looked left at Sasha Vujacic, then dished the ball to Luke Walton on his right. Kirilenko spent the entire time with his back to the ball, without a clue as to what was going to happen next.
Just like that, the ballgame was decided.
The MVP race isn't quite as finalized. I had been leaning toward LeBron and his 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game. But then the Cleveland Cavaliers dropped back-to-back games to the New Jersey Nets and the Washington Wizards, putting a serious dent in their chances of getting 50 victories. Now they have to win 11 of their last 13 games to get to a mark every MVP has reached after Moses Malone won the award with a 46-36 Houston Rockets team in 1982. (That doesn't include Karl Malone in the lockout-shortened 1999 season.)
Then again, the Cavs might be closer to 50 wins if they hadn't lost all six games James missed with injuries. With him in the lineup, they beat the Boston Celtics and Lakers twice, and the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons.
It's the old with-and-without argument. You know, the same one that was used against Garnett after the Celtics went 7-2 while he was injured. But that doesn't take into account the tone Garnett set for this team back during summer workouts or the 30-4 start that turned potential into reality. Or the sweep of the Texas teams the Celtics just completed. Boston has the best record in the league, and don't dismiss it as the luck of playing in the Eastern Conference. It actually has a higher winning percentage against the West than it does against the East.
But you know what's missing from Garnett's highlight package? The big shots. When you loop Celtics video, you see clutch jumpers by Ray Allen and new addition Sam Cassell. As a Celtic described it to me earlier in the season, Garnett is happy to let others do the scoring. That frees him to focus on defense and rebounding. There's value to that, too. Someone who values those things is valuable.
But at some point, an MVP should decide games with the ball in his hands. He should master the moment.
LeBron has shown an increasing ability to do that. It started in Detroit in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals last year. The entire fourth quarter and overtime were an extended moment, like a movie director shooting a scene with one long camera shot (as seen in "Goodfellas" and "Kill Bill").
LeBron had a few more moments against the Pistons on Wednesday. He capped it off with
a late 3-pointer, totally irrelevant to the game's outcome but completely germane to the burgeoning rivalry. It was his way of saying, "Take that with you. You haven't seen the last of me."
But Bryant's moments Thursday put the Lakers in first place in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
That's the difference at this moment.
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.