Kobe and Dirk: Different kind of rivalry

In this, his first season with the Dallas Mavericks, Tyson Chandler noticed something different in his games against Kobe Bryant. This wasn't the same version of Bryant that Chandler saw when he was with the Bulls, Hornets and Bobcats. Bryant always seemed to have a little something extra for these Lakers-Mavericks games, in a way that reminded Chandler of watching on television when Bryant went up against the likes of LeBron James or Dwyane Wade.

Chandler took it as a sign of respect for the Mavericks, which meant that there was respect for their leader, Dirk Nowitzki. Those are the types of threads we have to weave together, the equations we must solve without knowing the exact value of x, to get an understanding of this unique relationship among the members of the exclusive club of active NBA Most Valuable Player award winners from the past decade.

Bryant and Nowitzki haven't shared the court for repeated playoff battles, as Bryant has with Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash. Bryant hasn't shared practices and plane flights with German-born Nowitzki on the United States Olympic basketball team, as he has with James.

Kobe insists that he knows Dirk "pretty well," having been together for nine All-Star games and even while finding each other in the same tournament on the other side of the world during the Beijing Olympics.

"I got a chance to kick it with him a little bit," Bryant said Tuesday. "He's a great guy, man."

There isn't the kind of closeness that would lead to extended postgame hugs and conversation that you'd see between Bryant and, say, Carmelo Anthony. Nor is there the contempt that might develop from repeated postseason clashes. Somehow Kobe's and Dirk's paths hadn't crossed in the playoffs until now, even though they've been on two of the top teams in the Western Conference throughout most of their careers.

Kobe hasn't trained his sights on Dirk the way he has on LeBron or Tracy McGrady or Allen Iverson over the years, because Kobe has always worried about guards and small forwards, not power forwards and centers.

"It's different," Bryant conceded. "Because it's not a personal challenge for me to try to stop him, to make things difficult for him. So it makes things different in that regard."

But there's a deeper connection between Bryant and Nowitzki, one that requires more gaps to be filled in by us because you won't hear it explicitly stated by the participants: Nowitzki's 2007 MVP award led to Bryant's 2008 MVP trophy, his first and only one.

When Nowitzki won in 2007, it marked the second consecutive season that Bryant led the league in scoring but wasn't the one holding the Maurice Podoloff Trophy afterward. The year before it had gone to Nash.

Kobe had more points, but Nash and Nowitzki had more wins.

In 2007-08, not only was Bryant blessed with more talent surrounding him, he also allowed teammates to share the spotlight more, and the Lakers flourished as a result. Bryant's shots per game went from 22.8 to 20.6, and his scoring average dropped below 30, down to 28.3. But the Lakers' record zoomed in the opposite direction, from 42-40 to 57-25.

When Bryant received his award at a hotel near LAX airport that year, his acceptance revealed an awareness he had reached after watching Nowitzki hoist the trophy at his expense the year before.

"This is a team award, not an individual award, because we all do it as a unit," Bryant said that day. "I couldn't have won it on my own. If that was the case I would have won it when I was averaging 40. This gets done because we all do it as a unit."

Twelve years and three championships into Kobe's career he actually learned something from Dirk's example. As a result, the largest gap on Bryant's bio page was filled in.

Three years later Nowitzki has surged into the lead again. Dirk had four points in the final 40 seconds of Game 1; Kobe had none. Kobe had to endure a reporter summarizing his late-game shortcomings in recent playoffs and then gave his own sarcastic explanation: "I'm not clutch."

The last time speculation swirled about Bryant, in the first round of the playoffs, he planted on the sprained ankle that had caused all the consternation, soared and dunked on the Hornets' Emeka Okafor. Should this round of criticism prompt a similar reaction from Bryant, perhaps he could say the same thing for the great guy he knows pretty well that he could have easily said upon receiving his MVP.

Thanks, Dirk.