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Bill Plaschke

Playing follow the leader was never so fun

May 08, 2008|Bill Plaschke

Kobe Bryant stared down the crowd as if he were staring down his teammates.

He shouted into the cavernous arena as if he were shouting into a huddle.

"I love you," he screamed. "Now let's get this party started!"

And so they did, the Lakers, the fans, everybody following their leader these days into this growing notion of greatness.

Wednesday was supposed to be Bryant's MVP celebration but, typical of his MVP season, he shared it with everyone else.

Derek Fisher brought the streamers, throwing in 22 points on soaring shots that seemed to scrape the scoreboard floodlights.

Lamar Odom brought the stick to break the pinata, muscling inside with a sweat-stained shirt, a strangely fierce stare and 16 rebounds.

Bryant was, as usual, the candles, a constant burn of 34 points, eight rebounds, six assists, MVP, MVP, MVP.

Today -- and you knew this last bad metaphor was coming -- there is icing on the face of the Utah Jazz, who lost Game 2 of this Western Conference semifinal by a score of 120-110.

Utah also, incidentally, may have also lost a series that they now trail two games to none.

Even traveling back to the toughest homecourt in basketball -- they lost just four times there this season -- the Jazz are also surely carrying a sense of dread.

They're not playing that bad. They're not playing Denver dead. They pound hard and pass well and always stay somehow connected.

But still, it seems as if they never really have a chance. It seems as if the Lakers are operating at a different speed, with a different intensity, in a completely different league.

"We want to continue to get better and better, we don't want to look back," said Odom. "We keep trying to find a way to win, we keep striving for perfection."

At 6-0 in this postseason, they have it, and are playing like it.

Take the Jazz's last great threat, when Utah closed to within five points with 5:38 remaining in the game.

What happens? Kobe happens. The Lakers happen.

Bryant goes sprawling into the lane, throws a pass to Sasha Vujacic from his back, and Vujacic hits a jumper.

Carlos Boozer goes down the middle of the lane at the other end, throws up a shot that Odom blocks, throws up another shot that Pau Gasol blocks.

Back on the Lakers end, Odom whips the ball to Vujacic, who whips it to Fisher, who hits another sky-diving three-pointer.

Had enough? Not the Lakers, who finished their late push when Bryant dribbled around one, two, three Utah players into the lane, doing a 360-degree spin.

Then passed the ball.

To Gasol, for a dunk.

MVP, MVP, MVP.

"We played great team defense, then Kobe or Lamar got into the lane on the other end, and it made us tough to stop," Luke Walton said.

So it has gone for both teams during a series in which the Jazz's best inside threat, Boozer, can't stay out of foul trouble or in steady motion against the Lakers' active big men.

Meanwhile, their outside leader, Deron Williams, can't seem to shake Fisher, who is acting as if he has lost 10 years and gained two more hands.

Fisher "is such a smart player. . . . We're just trying to make this as tough as possible for Darren," Bryant said.

And, of course, Utah has absolutely no answer, any time, anywhere, for the finding-a-new-level-daily Bryant.

Before the game, he was honored in three ways previously unimaginable.

David Stern, NBA commissioner, showed up to hand him the MVP trophy.

The fans wore a shirt that honored Bryant with the word, "Our" on it, as in, "Our Team. Our Time. Our MVP."

And, as perhaps the coolest honor of all in a town filled with the world's best screenwriters, the giant pregame sheet video once again displayed Bryant's prose.

It was one of his quotes from in the postseason.

"You shake the tree, a leopard's gonna fall out."

Yeah, leopards really do hang out in trees. And, yeah, Bryant is not only the symbol for this team, he is also now its voice, less than a year after everybody just wanted him to shut up.

The change is dramatic, but, as Stern said before the game, "Hey, it's the NBA, it's crazy."

Even Coach Phil Jackson, who once ripped Bryant in a book, recognized the change in attitude.

"I think there's some people who turned their thumbs down on Kobe after the 2003-2004 season, they washed their hands of being Kobe fans," said Jackson. "That happens to stars in this game. Familiarly breeds some kind of contempt. . . . We awoke the interest in him again this year by the team's play."

That play has reached a new level not because Bryant is a more skilled player, but because he is a more involved player, shoving his teammates to the front of the stage time and again.

He clearly trusts them more. And so they trust themselves.

Before the game, somebody asked the plain-speaking Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan why he didn't double-team Bryant.

"Because he just throws it to somebody else and they make a layup," he said, pausing. "I don't know if that makes any sense or not."

A couple of years ago, that would not make any sense. Now it makes perfect sense.

In the final seconds of the third quarter Thursday, it took perfect form.

Odom grabbed a rebound in front of the Utah basket. Bryant dribbled it around he Lakers' three-point line, shooed away defender Matt Harpring, spun around, found Fisher in the corner, then watched Fisher hit a three-pointer for a 13-point lead.

"There are times when people don't realize what they do for the game and what the game does for them until they are retired," Stern said. "I'm glad to see when players come to that understanding earlier. . . . Kobe seems to be at that point now."

Finally, typically, when Bryant was given his pregame award, he requested that his teammates come to center court to join him.

"I'm so thankful, I'm just, gosh, I'm at a loss for words," Bryant said.

The fans helped him.

MV . . . well, you know.

--

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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