Kobe and Melo, friends and foes

If you've ever been to the restaurant Houston's, you understand that no main course you order will taste better than the spinach-and-artichoke-dip appetizer. That's something to keep in mind for everyone salivating over a possible LeBron James-Kobe Bryant matchup in the NBA Finals. If they meet, there's no way it will be as good as the show Kobe and Carmelo Anthony put on during the Western Conference finals.

The 40 points Bryant scored against Denver in the Los Angeles Lakers' tense, series-opening victory were more than he scored in his team's two regular-season games against James' Cleveland Cavaliers. And Carmelo's 39 points in Game 1 matched LeBron's two-game output against the Lakers this season.

For whatever reason, LeBron and Kobe don't bring out the best in each other when they share the court. Kobe is often injured or ill when he plays the Cavaliers. LeBron has off shooting nights against the Lakers. This season, both averaged 19.5 points against each other. They seem to fare better with long-range competition, the way Kenyon Martin and Mark Cuban took shots at each other from a distance during the Denver-Dallas series but never squared off face-to-face.

For whatever reason, their best performances often come as messages to each other, like comic book villains committing brazen acts just to get the attention of a superhero. Kobe scores 61 in Madison Square Garden on a Monday in February, and two days later, LeBron goes for 52 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds in the same building. Kobe goes for 40 to start the conference finals, and LeBron goes for 49 the next night.

But with Carmelo, there was no waiting. He actually struck first, part of a strong Denver start that forced Bryant to be at his best.

"It was definitely a battle," Denver's Chris Andersen said. "Those two guys are the most extreme competitors.

"It was fun to watch, but it was even better to be out there, being a part of it."

Maybe Kobe and Carmelo are capable of being better against each other because this really isn't a head-to-head competition. Kobe is trying to throw a dam in front of the flood of public opinion shifting toward LeBron as the game's best player. Carmelo is just trying to be included in the discussion. (He'll have to get past Dwyane Wade before he enters Kobe-LeBron territory.)

This is the real election; the regular season is just the primaries.

"Everybody knows stars are born in the playoffs," Anthony said.

More specifically, late in the playoffs. This year, Anthony finally gets to play on Memorial Day weekend. He's been on a tear, averaging 28.1 points during the playoffs and creating matchup nightmares with his ability to hit 3s, beat defenders off the dribble or post up. After he scored 20 points in the first half of Game 1, he forced Bryant to leave Chauncey Billups and take his turn guarding Anthony.

Bryant likened it to a boxer moving up in weight class for a fight. He claims Anthony is even stronger than James.

"That's a big kid," Kobe said. "You fight, you stick to your defensive principles and try to deny the guy the ball and force him off his spots and try to make it tough for him."

They became more familiar with each other's games by spending the past two summers together on the U.S. Olympic team. (Kobe claims Carmelo stole his pull-up jumper from him.) Just as significantly, they got to know each other.

Kobe had been an outsider among the NBA fraternity. No one knew him, and he had never made an effort to reach out to other players. With so many superstars and strong personalities on the Olympic squad, he couldn't just do things his way. It was either blend in or be ostracized.

"He almost didn't have a choice but to be cool and outgoing with us, the caliber of players we had on this team," Anthony said. "Off the court, we're all outgoing people, we all like to have fun. He came and fit right in.

"I think it changed everybody's perception. I think it changed his perception of us, too. We became closer."

Of all the bonds formed, Kobe and Carmelo's might be the tightest.

"He's like a brother to me," Kobe said. "I love him. We spend a lot of time together. He was the one I'm closest with on the team."

Kobe is definitely the big brother. He has set a higher standard. Although this has been a breakthrough playoffs for Carmelo, Kobe has a slightly higher scoring average (28.4), even though it feels as if he isn't having his best postseason.

We'll see whether the friendship can survive the intensity of the playoffs. Coming in, Anthony had to joke, "That's my man, but I don't know him this week."

First, he might want to get reacquainted with his teammates in crunch time. Although Bryant ran off 15 points in the final seven minutes of Game 1, Anthony didn't get a shot in the final two minutes.

"You're damn right I wanted the ball," he said. "I don't want to go into why I didn't get the ball or anything like that."

He didn't come close to calling out his coach the way Dwight Howard did with Stan Van Gundy.

But ask Bryant whether he'd like a guy such as Billups to handle some of the late-game duties. It was all on Kobe in the fourth quarter. He came through, but at a great toll of energy. He even played the entire fourth quarter instead of sitting out the first few minutes as Lakers coach Phil Jackson prefers.

The Lakers' inefficiency could be costing them. They should have disposed of the Rockets in five games but saw that series stretch out to seven, and now L.A. is stuck in an every-other-day schedule for the next week.

Bryant, who never admits to fatigue, excused himself from a chat with a couple of reporters on Wednesday, saying, "I've got to go home and get some sleep." Lamar Odom sent out a postpractice Twitter update that read, "Not gonna lie, I'm a little tired right now."

Game 2 should be every bit as tough in a series that could go seven games. Hopefully. We won't get tired of watching Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony share the stage.

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.