Oh say can you see Kobe Bryant sinking jump shots?
In a prescient start to Tuesday night's red glare of a playoff game, the Lakers star raised his pregame warmups to the approximate level of the Staples Center flags.
Standing in the customary line with teammates before the national anthem, with the lights dim and Jeffery Osborne preparing to croon, Bryant was still shooting and sinking 15-foot shots. Again, and again, and again.
Bryant stopped when the singing began. But once it ended well, it never ended, as Bryant picked up the beat and pounded it into both his slow-start teammates and the stubborn Denver Nuggets with 38 points in the Lakers' 104-100 victory.
One day the teacher, the next day the valedictorian, Bryant has led the Lakers to a two-games-to-none lead in what could be a spring to remember. As first-round series go, this one already feels like a one-minute knockout, with the Lakers looking as postseason strong as they have looked since beating Boston in Game 7.
"The energy and commitment are there," said Bryant afterward. "The focus is there."
So is the hammer. The Nuggets won 58% of their games, finished just three games behind the Lakers in the standings, and yet they haven't led for one second here, and it's rarely felt even that close. Even though the series now moves to the high altitude of Denver, history shows that the Nuggets' chances are badly in need of oxygen.
In the Kobe Bryant era that began with the 1997 postseason, the Lakers have never lost a series that they have led two games to none, going 20-0 in that time.
"You just have to go after it, you have to go get it," said Bryant, searching desperately for a sixth title with a mantra that is becoming this team's theme.
The Lakers are so hot, Jordan Hill is charged with third-degree assault one day, then dominates inside a day later with 10 rebounds. The Lakers are so hot, playoff newbie Ramon Sessions makes just two baskets in three quarters, then finishes with 10 fourth-quarter points like a spring veteran.
The Lakers are so hot, even their fans are unstoppable. During the two playoff games at Staples Center, in the charity shooting contest at the end of the first quarter, the two designated fans were four for four, each sinking a free throw and a three-point shot to cheers as loud as any heard during the game.
But this night was all about Bryant, who was praised after the Lakers' opening win for his season-long initiative to urge his teammates to be more assertive in pressure situations and stop relying only on him. The results were six Lakers in double figures, two with double-doubles and a 15-point win.
On Tuesday, well, sometimes Kobe still just has to be Kobe. It was apparent early that his teammates were not matching the energy of their opening win, so Bryant took over with six baskets in eight attempts in the first quarter alone. He scored falling down, leaning forward, flying, fumbling, however, whenever. At halftime, he had 21 of the Lakers' 55 points, he had missed only three of a dozen shots and he was just getting started.
In the third quarter, he pounded the Nuggets during a stretch that included three huge jabs: He hit a turnaround baseline jumper while being hammered by Arron Afflalo. He raced downcourt and blocked a fastbreak layup attempt by Al Harrington. He scored on a spinning layup through traffic up the middle.
In the fourth quarter, maybe the best closer in the history of the game closed it with an old-school shove and slam. When the Nuggets pulled with four in the final three minutes, Bryant grabbed a rebound out of a scrum, dribbled the length of the court, then threw it to Bynum for a dunk that turned into a three-point play, the most important play of the game.
"You sit there and watch him hit one of those amazing shots and you're like, 'I'm glad he's on my team,'" Sessions said. "He puts the ball up and it's like, 'OK, I'm just going to run back on defense now.'"
And you wondered how Bryant could miss eight of the team's last eight regular season games with both a shin injury and a decision to sit? This is why. He was girding himself for this. He was preparing for what is surely one of his last serious runs at a title.
"It helped tremendously," said Bryant of the time off. "I feel great."
Bryant even energized a crowd that was criticized before the game by Denver Coach George Karl.
"This is not a hot building," Karl said of Staples Center. "This is kind of a stage. It's a Broadway stage and has a history and an energy to it. But it's not one of those can't-hear [places]."
The worst thing about those comments is, so far in this young postseason, Karl is right. The Staples Center crowd's slow-to-build intensity has not yet consistently risen to the level of the Lakers' play. The fact that many fans were chanting "We want tacos" with the Lakers holding only a six-point lead down the stretch is evidence of an unsettling expectation that victory is certain.
Then again, I guess having Kobe Bryant on your team can make it seem that way.