Lakers guard Kobe Bryant dunks during the first half of Tuesday's… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
So you want to stop Kobe Bryant.
Realize it's a pretty impossible task. Oh, teams can try. And plenty have after Bryant has played 16 seasons and logged 1,161 career games. But Bryant has collected five NBA championships, climbed to fourth place on the all-time scoring list and showed he still has plenty left in his tank.
His 38 points on 15-of-29 points in the Lakers' 104-100 Game 2 victory over the Denver Nuggets marked the 83rd time he's scored at least 30 points in a playoff game. Whether he's motivated to chase Jordan's NBA record of 109 or not, the scoring featured a whole lot of things Bryant does well. It turns out Bryant just needed eight games to rest his sore left shin and an off-season procedure on his right knee and left ankle in Germany to turn back the clock.
"It helped tremendously," Bryant said on resting. "I feel great."
He sure looked great.
Bryant threw Corey Brewer off on three consecutive possessions through repeated jab steps, pump fakes and yes, a few push offs.
"Look man, I'm just stronger," said Bryant, whose 205 pound body is superior to Brewer's 188-pound frame. "I'm just bigger."
Bryant nailed two step-back one-legged fadeaways that appeared similar to Dirk Nowitzki. It serves as another example of Bryant adding an extra nuance to his game each season, but he's hardly going to pay homage to someone who's won less rings than him.
"Actually, I improved his move," Bryant said. "I can shoot mine from the three-point line. He can't do that."
On a night when the Lakers didn't exactly start off with the right energy, Bryant took over. He made six field goals on eight attempts in the first quarter. Bryant accounted for 21 of the Lakers' 55 points by halftime. In a twisted way, the Nuggets had Bryant where they wanted him.
That's because the Nuggets elected to guard him with single coverage. They funneled more resources at stopping Andrew Bynum because of his inside presence. They hoped, at worst, Bryant's high scoring rate would lead to a disengaged and imbalanced offense. They wondered, at best, if Bryant's shooting streak would eventually fizzle.
But as Bryant showed in Game 2, it's possible both to dominate the scoring column, feed the ball inside and make hustle plays.
In the third quarter, Bryant chased Nuggets forward AL Harringron downcourt and blocked a fastbreak layup. In the most important play of the game, Bryant chased down Denver forward Kenneth Faried, stole the ball, dribbled up the court and set Bynum up for a dunk. The sequence gave the Lakers a 97-91 lead with 2:15 remaining.
"I just had to get the ball," Bryant said. "It was a loose ball and they were fighting for it. I don't know who was underneath the basket. I just shoved him out of the way and picked the ball up. I could've pushed it down the floor and had a layup, but you have to reward your big man."
In turn, Bryant rewarded the Lakers with the best blueprint on how to play. He remained aggressive and looked to score. Bryant ensured Bynum a career-high 27 points, while Pau Gasol facilitated up top with 13 points and 10 rebounds. He encouraged Ramon Sessions to attack the basket as he scored 10 of his 14 points in the final frame. Bryant set the model on defense.
He may not have been able to do these things in the 2010-2011 campaign. Bryant categorized it as a "broken season" because of his injuries and inability to practice much. But now that Bryant has a full tank of gas, he's pushing the accelerator.
"The energy and commitment are there," Bryant said. "The focus is there."
That, of course, starts with No. 24, who showed once again his determination not to let anyone stop him from reaching his goal.