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NBA PLAYOFFS | LAKERS 97, HOUSTON 78 | Bill Plaschke

It's Clear That Playoff Time Has Become Bryant's Time

April 29, 2004|Bill Plaschke

The speeding, sputtering, surreal bus that is the Lakers took another wild turn Wednesday, around Houston, toward San Antonio, via Kobe.

The fuel is a mixture of elation and confusion.

The truth is nowhere on the map.

If Kobe Bryant is found not guilty of sexual assault, you are not cheering loudly enough.

If he is found guilty of sexual assault, you are cheering far too much.

But nobody knows, so all one can do is stand in awe of how one team's championship hopes are being carried by one guy also shouldering a fight for his life.

The Lakers won the game over the Rockets, 97-78.

The Lakers won the first-round series over the overmatched kids, four games to one.

But who is kidding whom?

This was not about the domination of a team, but a player.

This was about a guy who spent the last three days in a tense Colorado court carrying a group of guys who spent that time on a comfy home court.

It was one guy who arrived at the arena less than 30 minutes before the start of the game being more prepared than everyone who had been around all afternoon.

It was the guy least likely to have his wits acting as the team's conscience.

It was the guy most likely to be exhausted acting as the team's fire.

It was 31 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, one long dropping of a jaw from a town that thought it had seen it all.

"When I get on the basketball court, something just energizes me about the game," Bryant said afterward, smiling and holding his daughter, Natalia. "It's just fun to play."

But he admitted, he had never been more exhausted in a game.

"I'm very tired," he said, later adding, "Tomorrow, I'm not getting off the couch."

With Bryant now clearly in the lead role, this season is no longer a comedy or a soap opera.

This is a serious, 10 p.m., put-the-children-to-bed drama.

"This is not a circus," Karl Malone said. "This is the furthest thing from a circus I can imagine. This is not a circus, this is life."

At 6:56 p.m. Wednesday -- 25 minutes before tipoff -- Bryant left his car and entered the Staples Center tunnel to the roar of a crowd watching it on the giant video screen inside.

It was as if they were cheering a boxer entering the ring. But, um, he wasn't wearing a robe, and had not spent the day at a luxurious hotel.

"He'd been up there three days dealing with that." said Malone, shaking his head.

Oh, yeah. That.

"It's been written about so much, it's like, it's a speeding ticket," Malone said. "This is not a speeding ticket."

Perhaps because this was the third time Bryant had returned from his court hearing to play in a game, and perhaps because the Lakers are now 3-0 in those games with Bryant being the star each time, everyone forgets where he's been.

And how difficult it seemed last fall for Bryant to even show up.

"What he's done this year, how many guys would have done it?" said Malone, talking about Bryant's play. "I've known a lot of guys, tough guys, who would not have even shown up. They would have taken the whole year off.

"I commend him, and I'm not ashamed to say it. The guy didn't run and hide. The guy faced it."

Not only faced it, but, so far, triumphed amid it, far more than other guys who some thought would have picked up the slack.

Shaquille O'Neal, although complimented by Coach Phil Jackson on his defense, seemed invisible during long stretches, finishing with only 12 points, two offensive rebounds, and four turnovers.

Gary Payton, forever struggling to find himself here, had more fouls (4) than assists (3) to go with five points.

Malone was the lone teammate who seemed to match Bryant's energy, the oldest guy acting half his age, with 18 points and nine rebounds.

Remember how it used to be Kobe and Shaq? Now it's Kobe and Karl.

Remember how this time of year used to belong to O'Neal? Now it clearly belongs only to Bryant, who fought off the urge to fall asleep in the car on the way to the game.

"I actually meditated," he said. "I didn't want to go to sleep, we only had 20 minutes to get to the game."

Once there, he allowed Cuttino Mobley to score 14 points in the first quarter, was briefly benched, then took over.

"He wasn't focused, he wasn't game-ready," Jackson said. "We got him on the bench a couple of minutes, let him go back in ... he sparked to it. Had a great game. Picked us up out of a real dismal start."

And now it's on to San Antonio, where Bryant said things will be different from last year's second-round defeat because the Lakers are in better physical shape than last season.

They also, for many reasons, have a different Kobe Bryant.

How the Spurs decide to defend him, they absolutely do not want to borrow from the Rockets pregame grease board.

On Wednesday, that board read,

It's Simple.

O'Neal.

Malone.

Pick and rolls.

The way things are going, the Spurs need to change the wording a bit.

It's Simple.

Bryant.

Bryant.

Bryant.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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