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WESTERN FINALS: GAME 1 : LAKERS VS. SUNS: GAME 1

Bryant is a real drain on Suns

May 18, 2010|BILL PLASCHKE

"What do you think?''

It was the enigmatic, emphatic question that answered a question.

It was Kobe Bryant's response to The Times' Brad Turner last week when Turner wondered whether the Lakers' consecutive postseason horrors against the Phoenix Suns burdened Bryant.

"What do you think?" Bryant said, glaring.

Well, Monday night, after watching a golden rage pour out of him like pure lava from jagged and smoldering rocks, here's what I think.

This is Kobe with a bigger chip on his shoulder than in his knee. This is Kobe holding a memory as painful as his finger. This is, on or off the court, the most unstoppable Kobe that anybody can encounter.

This is payback Kobe.

"It's never personal with me," Bryant said late Monday, smiling.

Which means it's always personal, and certainly against a Suns team Bryant had just knocked silly with his baggage in the Lakers' 128-107 victory at Staples Center in the Western Conference finals opener.

You want to pin the Lakers' previous postseason failures against the Suns under his watch on him? Pin this -- 40 points in 35 minutes on 23 shots, wow after wow after wow.

"Part of it was to show them that we're a different team than the one that they face,'' he said, clearly referring to previous playoff losses. "It was important in Game 1 to show them that this was going to be a fight.''

You want to think his drained right knee is too sore? Drain this -- 21 points in a third quarter in which he attempted 16 field goals and free throws and missed only three.

"Just lost weight,'' he said of the effects of draining on his knee, a procedure that The Times reported occurred earlier this spring. "Lost a couple of pounds.''

You think he's too old to hang against a running team? Run with this --leading by seven at the start of that third period, he scored on a fadeaway, a floater, a three-pointer, a layup, two jump shots, three free throws and a dunk in the first nine minutes.

He showed the grinding teeth. He showed the angry stare. He would dribble into Grant Hill's face, then fall backward for two. He would muscle around Jared Dudley, then fall forward for two more.

"He hit some shots,'' said the oft-beaten Hill, pausing, correcting himself. "He hit some tough shots.''

Dudley shrugged and said, "He just had it going today. I mean, he really had it going.''

Bryant didn't just beat the Suns on the court, he beat them in their heads, with Hill and Dudley exhausting so much effort on defense that they combined to go two for 13.

"He kind of controlled the whole game," Suns Coach Alvin Gentry said of Bryant. "Those shots he was making, you can't do anything about.''

Bryant obviously benefitted from a week's worth of rest -- he had not really practiced since the Lakers finished their four-game sweep of the Utah Jazz.

"My legs benefited a lot,'' he said. "Take some time off. Just get stronger. like a training camp all over again. . . . Now I feel I have two legs to play with.''

But he was also fueled by three years' worth of haunting.

Surely you remember the 2006 and 2007 playoff losses to the Suns? They were the Lakers' first postseason games since the trade of Shaquille O'Neal, the first chance for Bryant to show his stuff as a team leader, and he failed miserably.

The first series ended with Bryant's alleged tanking of Game 7, a charge he vehemently denied again several days ago.

The second series ended with Bryant openly complaining about a lack of help, a public gripe session that devolved into a summer-long sass.

In many ways, good ways, he is a different Bryant now. But in many ways --the ways that win championships -- he is not.

He works a grudge like he was working an undersized forward. He strives not only for victory, but vindication. When he took the court Monday, he didn't see just see a team from Phoenix, he felt the tug of one of the most miserable times of his career, and he was prepared to finally tug back.

"He was going to shoulder the game," Coach Phil Jackson said. "He was going to take it on.''

And when he did, even his teammates shook their heads.

"You kind of get used to it,'' Shannon Brown said. "But then sometimes, you're out there like, 'Wow.' ''

Bryant answered last week's question from Brad Turner with more than just a question.

After saying, "What do you think?'' he paused, looked at Turner, and said, "You already know.''

We do now.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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