Kobe takes center stage once again

LOS ANGELES -- The message is sent to Kobe Bryant every time he tucks the ball, surveys the defense and doesn't see a secondary man coming his way. The Denver Nuggets are worried more about Andrew Bynum hurting them inside than they are the man who has the most points among active players.

The attitude can be heard in George Karl's summary of the Los Angeles Lakers' season.

"Basically, it was Bynum's showcase season," Karl said, before moving on to the knee procedure that brought about Bryant's rejuvenation.

But even if this season is about Bynum, eventually, inevitably, the Lakers' fortunes are on Bryant.

And so, in the midst of a 1-for-7 fourth quarter, after the Nuggets finally sent secondary defenders his way, Bryant had the defining play. He didn't even get the points out of it.

What he did was dig out a loose ball deep in the Lakers' defensive end, push it upcourt past Ty Lawson into the lane, drawing Danilo Gallinari and then dropping a pass to Bynum for a dunk. It kept a four-point lead, which had shrunk from 19 points, from getting any closer. It helped preserve the Lakers' 104-100 victory and perfect record in two playoff games against the Nuggets.

It showed, as teammate Matt Barnes said, "just how hungry he is. He wants to do whatever it takes to win."

"I just had to get the ball," Bryant said. "It was a loose ball. We were fighting for it. I don't know who it was under the basket. I just shoved him out of the way to get the basketball."

I just had to get the ball.

He often gets what he wants.

That's the case even if there's no one left in the locker room who really gets him, none of the guys left who can say, as Bryant put it recently, "We grew up through the struggles."

"That adds a little something to it," Bryant said. "When you go through the wars together and you fail together and you make it. But here, we just built a whole new thing."

With a new construction crew.

Eddie Jones, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Nick Van Exel and the other veterans who were around when Bryant first broke in are now all retired. Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and even longtime Laker Luke Walton were all traded this season.

It's coming up on eight years since Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Miami. Not that Kobe shed any tears over the departure, but it's still difficult to separate the two. Shaq seemingly spent half of his retirement news conference talking about his relationship with Kobe. And now Kobe has played as many seasons without Shaq as he did with him.

It's not just the players Bryant has outlasted, it's franchise icons in this flagship organization. Kobe stayed on after Jerry West stopped calling the shots and he stayed on after Magic Johnson sold his ownership shares. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came and went as a special assistant coach, and Bryant trudged on.

The last link was Fisher, who came in with Bryant as a rookie in 1996. And now Fisher is looming as a potential opponent in the second round.

"It's weird," Bryant said. "It's new. That's one thing that's different than myself or [Michael] Jordan or Tim Duncan, all those guys. They all had consistency their whole careers. They had Phil [Jackson], they had Pip [Scottie Pippen, for Jordan in Chicago]. You've got Manu [Ginobili], you've got Tony [Parker], you've got Pop [Gregg Popovich, in San Antonio]. I've had a whole new roster, a whole new staff."

If Bryant does match Jordan's sixth championship he'll have one without Jackson, something Jordan never did. Jordan also won every championship with Pippen, although the rest of the roster turned over between the first and second sets of the Bulls' three-peats. Duncan and Popovich have been together for all four of the Spurs' championships, with Ginobili and Duncan along for the past three.

I'd never thought of that before, but clearly Bryant has, as if searching for ways to distinguish himself. He realizes that there are legions of Jordan fans who will never entertain the thought of Bryant as being better no matter how many rings he gets, so no need to wage an unwinnable battle.

"If you go to a barbershop today there's going to be old-timers who say [Bill] Russell's the greatest of all time," Bryant said on ESPN 710 AM radio in Los Angeles last week. "It's a constant debate. That debate never ends."

However, "You always want to give the people that support you the most ammo possible," Bryant said.

The only bullets that matter to him are rings and points, points and rings. We can debate the number of field goal attempts all we want. He won't stop shooting, especially if an opponent is going with single coverage.

He took 29 shots Tuesday night.

He made 14 of his first 20 shots before missing a 3-point heave to beat the buzzer at the end of the third quarter. He had scored 33 of his 38 points at that stage.

The fourth quarter would not be defined by his big shots. Ramon Sessions actually had more of those. But there was that end-to-end play, that swipe and drive and pass. After Bynum was fouled as he dunked, Bryant paused to collect his breath, then wheeled back for a high-10 with Bynum, plus a punch to Bynum's chest for good measure.

They don't have an extensive history together. But this is his latest ticket to a championship, the weapon who can help him gain that additional ammo.

And with none of the familiar faces around, Bryant needs new allies.