LeBron James was the king. The injured, hobbled Kobe Bryant was merely a member of his court.
A little more than a month ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers had zipped through the regular season and topped off the Chicago Bulls in the first round while Bryant and the Lakers limped around against the young, feisty Oklahoma City Thunder.
James received his second consecutive most-valuable-player trophy a week after Bryant scored 12 points in a playoff loss against the Thunder, his lowest postseason output in six years. He looked exactly like a guy who had logged more than 44,000 minutes in over 1,200 games.
Fast forward to now, an NBA reality check in which the Cavaliers have been eliminated and Bryant is four victories from his fifth NBA championship while playing some of the best basketball of his career.
"I mean, what can you say about Kobe?" Phoenix Suns Coach Alvin Gentry said after the Lakers eliminated Phoenix last week. "I don't know if there's words."
He eventually found some.
"At this time right now, he's the best player in basketball," Gentry said. "And I don't think it's even close."
If Bryant's knee hadn't been drained, the Lakers might be talking about rejection instead of redemption.
They were struggling badly a week into the playoffs, unable to ride the back of their leader because he was supported by one healthy leg. His right knee swelled to the point of extreme discomfort and his on-court ability shrunk accordingly.
He then had 1 1/4 ounces of fluid drained from his knee, and the procedure worked wonders for his game.
Bryant's recovery has mirrored that of the Lakers, who are on the doorstep of the franchise's 16th championship. They begin the NBA Finals on Thursday against the Boston Celtics, who humiliated them two years ago in the championship round.
Retribution is now possible mainly because Bryant no longer looks like he's on his last legs. "He's like Superman," forward Lamar Odom said. "You can't hold him down."
Oklahoma City certainly stepped on his cape at the end of April, holding him back in the Lakers' 110-89 blowout loss that deadlocked the first-round playoff series at two games each. The Lakers, the top team in the West during the regular season, were in jeopardy of being erased by the eighth-place Thunder.
The next day Bryant had his knee drained.
He was unremarkable in his first game after the procedure, scoring 13 points in a breezy 111-87 victory over Oklahoma City, but he had 32 points in the decisive game April 30, knocking out the pesky Thunder as the Lakers advanced to the next round.
Then he averaged an impressive 32 points and 5.8 assists in a four-game sweep of Utah and came close to a triple-double three times in the conference finals against Phoenix, averaging 33.7 points, 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the six-game series.
Bryant abhors discussing his injuries, but he knows the reason for his uptick last month. "I had that nasty stuff sucked out of my knee," he said recently. "Since then I've been fine."
The Lakers have a score to settle with the Celtics. So does Bryant.
He was the regular-season MVP in 2008 but was outplayed by Boston forward Paul Pierce in the Finals. Pierce, not Bryant, was the Finals MVP.
Bryant doesn't reveal much in interviews these days, speaking in clipped tones, part of an us-against-the-world mantra he adopts during the playoffs. In a Monday interview with reporters, he was typically cagey when asked about facing the Celtics again.
Q: Are the Lakers ready for Boston's physical nature?
A: "We're ready."
Q: More ready than two years ago?
A: (Smiling thinly, looking down at his feet) "Yeah."
Q: How so?
A: (Still looking down, still smiling) "We're ready."
He was then asked why he didn't seem overly excited about the matchup between the historic rivals, who have combined to win 32 of a possible 63 NBA championships.
"I'm playing in it," Bryant said. "I don't give a damn about it. That's for other people to get excited about. I get excited about winning."
The Celtics know what to expect from him. "You're talking about one of the best players to ever play the game," Pierce said. "We expect his best."
Bryant's exuberance is revealed only in pockets, sometimes escaping after huge on-court plays.
Late in Game 6 of the conference finals, Bryant buried a tough 22-footer in front of the Suns' bench, tapped Gentry on the behind and stuck out his arms airplane-style, coming to rest near the Lakers' bench.
Even the NBA commissioner seemed impressed.
"To me, Kobe is there with Michael [Jordan]," David Stern said Tuesday on an NBA.com podcast. "If you saw that shot he made where he went by and patted Alvin Gentry, I am sitting there thinking, 'How did he make that?' That wasn't possible and he did it with someone hanging on him, and I do mean hanging."
Bryant's game is back. He hopes to take the Lakers with him over the next couple of weeks.
Times staff writer Baxter Holmes contributed to this report.
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