Kobe Bryant reigns with LeBron out

As dedicated followers of the NBA, we've all been exposed to a recent episode of witness tampering.

The star of this case is The King, LeBron James, who, while on the way to what was supposed to be his at-last coronation, was taken down at least one peg by the rabble from Boston. A ballyhooed Game 5 swoon created much unrest in the basketball nation, and his Game 6 failure to conquer the Celtics rendered his loyal subjects completely flabbergasted.

So, where do we, as observers suffering the unsolicited influence of recent events, turn in our quest to latch onto playoff royalty?

Well, it seems like a dandy time to dust off our memories and bow toward Los Angeles ... where the superstar who ruled the 2009 postseason still resides. This means that until further notice, the crown still rests upon the heavy head of Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.

Ah, what a difference a playoff-series victory makes.

Just slightly less than one month ago, it had been decreed that Kobe may not even be fit to cross swords with The King in the NBA Finals. Throughout the land, it was believed that Bryant's lengthy list of assorted physical ailments had left him vulnerable to the rapid movements of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And the evidence had been growing as the regular season drew to a close. No longer did Kobe seem capable of rocketing past overmatched wing defenders and dunking on the melons of their taller cronies. Thanks to a couple of warped fingers, the potential for gunning several marvelous and consecutive jumpers into the net seemed indefinitely postponed.

With his Lakers teammates also lacking the requisite juice to beat the young Thunder in an NBA footrace, Bryant was asked to offer something of a post-mortem address even though the first-round Western Conference series was tied at 2-2. After pointing out the folly in writing off the Lakers, Kobe went out and guarded Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, reducing some of the lightning in Westbrook's and taking back control of the series. Bryant, squeezing off a paltry nine field-goal attempts, finished with 13 points in that game, but spent most of his offensive minutes helping L.A. take advantage of its overwhelming altitude advantage in the paint.

He hasn't scored less than 30 points in a playoff game since. This run covers five Laker triumphs -- including a four-game sweep of the Utah Jazz. After firing up an inordinate amount of crooked shots in his first four playoff games, Kobe has made 62 of his last 122 shots from the floor. With the soon-to-be-32-year-old Bryant's return to on-court rule, the Lakers have been restored to Finals favorites leading into their Western Conference championship series with the plucky Phoenix Suns.

Is Kobe Bryant the NBA's greatest player? Still?

The appropriate answer greatly depends on your terms of the definition. In my terms, the greatest player is he who generates the most influence over a game when it matters most. James, it now is widely accepted, has held dominion over the regular season for the past couple of campaigns. But is it fair that his inability to steer the Cleveland Cavaliers from November-to-May aristocracy into June glory has diminished the perception of his overall impact?

Didn't guys like me howl when media sharpies sniffed at Michael Jordan's crazy numbers and dwell on playoff defeats that underscored the start of his career? Wasn't MJ working with on-court jesters until Scottie Pippen evolved into a trusted and title-winning sidekick? Certainly.

Well, isn't LeBron obliged to chase a legacy-setting title with middling running buddies such as Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison and the guy who used to be Shaquille O'Neal? Yeah, that's fair. But the comparison between Jordan and James falls apart when LeBron's performances in the face of humbling defeat are examined. OK, chipping paint off the rim has been done by great players before, but MJ (for example) would go to the post, attack the rim, get to the line, do whatever it takes to keep his team in the game.

LeBron also had excessive turnovers against Boston, but that can happen to anyone with the ball in his hands so frequently. But what can push someone as mighty as James from the throne were interludes of seeming disinterest in what was occurring as the dream slipped away. We never saw anything close to that from Jordan.

This takes us back to Kobe who, ironically, was credited with tanking a playoff game against the Phoenix Suns a few years ago. The event in question followed a typical Bryant shot-a-thon that was heralded as yet another selfish Kobe escapade. To this day, Kobe denies ever attempting to "prove a point" by refusing to shoot, thus allowing the basketball world to chew on the deficiencies of his teammates and/or Phil Jackson's game plan.

So the veteran who would be king (still) has not been beyond making (at least) curious efforts during important playoff moments.

But once he and the Lakers put their won-loss mediocrity behind them (hello, Pau Gasol!), Kobe has returned to the cutthroat, win-at-all-costs player he had been to that point. Now that he's claimed a championship ring while not working next to O'Neal, we've been free to anoint him as the greatest we've seen since Jordan. Even with the rise of LeBron, Bryant's ability to make perimeter shots and nail free throws during hero-making moments kept him firmly cemented as the league's foremost closer.

When that distinction began slipping away, Kobe -- through rest that only a TV-inspired playoff schedule can muster -- restored it by being brutally efficient at both ends of the floor.

Of course, hopping back into the big chair requires Bryant to continue this roll against Phoenix, and the team that survives the Eastern Conference finals.

What you've done for us lately matters quite a bit when settling any debate over NBA royalty. We do know that if his Lakers reach the Finals for the third season in row, Kobe won't be co-starring in what has been anticipated as a dream showdown with LeBron and the Cavaliers.

For his ability to hold up his end of this superstar-showdown bargain, Bryant supporters should feel free to celebrate their guy as the current greatest. NBA championships aren't awarded in March or April.

And kingdoms shouldn't be, either.