Kobe has more on line than just title for Lakers

Kobe Bryant hasn't called anybody anything so far in the NBA playoffs, though it's easy to imagine what kind of names he had in mind for his teammates following a shocking Game 1 loss to the New Orleans Hornets.

Meandering their way through an erratic regular season was one thing. Getting in the way of what may be Bryant's most important ring of them all is quite another.

The comparisons won't begin for real until the Lakers make the finals, something that isn't quite the lock this year that it was in the past. Come June, though, the debate will likely be in full bloom.

Is Kobe just like Mike? Will winning a sixth title and matching Jordan's total put Bryant on the same level as the player many consider the greatest in NBA history?

It will be increasingly hard to argue otherwise, assuming championships are the ultimate measuring stick of a great player. They are, and the truly great players find ways to win them even as the supporting cast around them changes and new rivals emerge.

Jordan did it with only Scottie Pippen along for the entire ride. Bryant is trying to do it with only Derek Fisher as the constant in the backcourt.

Jordan fans will argue their man's statistics are, for the most part, more impressive, and that Jordan would have won even more titles had he not taken off nearly two years at his peak to go play baseball. That may be true, but statistics aren't everything and you can't assume championships you didn't win.

The one thing Jordan had and Bryant has, though, is the one thing all great players have: The ability to do whatever is necessary to rally teammates and win games when games must be won.

There was no better example of that than in Game 2 against the Hornets, when Bryant abandoned his glitzy superstar role and made it his night's work to stalk Chris Paul the length of the basketball court. The box score shows Bryant only scored 11 points, but his gritty play seemed to wake up teammates who played the opener like they never expected the Hornets to put up a fight.

Bryant was back to his old ways Friday night in New Orleans, hitting two big 3s to start the second half and leading the Lakers to another win with 30 points. His lame-duck coach was happy to see his star scoring again, though he didn't exactly shower him in praise.

"Kobe can play better than that," Phil Jackson said.

Jackson should know. The Zen Master has been courtside for all five of Bryant's championship runs, just as he was in Chicago for all six of Jordan's titles. He understands better than anybody what it takes to motivate a superstar when it's most crucial.

Getting the superstar's teammates to step up their roles is trickier, though Pau Gasol finally came to life in Game 3 after playing passively the first two games. Bryant has been exasperated at times with Gasol's tendency to be too nice during a game, but Gasol was scowling just like Bryant on Friday as the Lakers restored order to a playoff series they should easily win.

Whether they can keep winning against better teams than the undermanned Hornets is the challenge. The Lakers coasted for stretches during the regular season — not surprising since they've been in the NBA finals the last three years and played 67 playoff games in that stretch — and found out in Game 1 that turning on the intensity takes some work.

But they seem even better equipped for a long playoff run than in the last three years. Their bench is deeper with Steve Blake and Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom is the league's best sixth man, and Andrew Bynum has shown signs of being a dominant inside force for some time to come.

Most importantly, though, they have Bryant.

He's 32 now and in his 15th season in the league, a time when the aches and pains begin to start adding up. For the third time in the last four seasons, though, he played every regular season game even as his per-game minutes were down from the before.

Friday's game against the Hornets was his 201st career playoff game, yet he approached it like it was his first. Like Jordan, he seems to be able to find an extra gear in the playoffs when he needs it most, and, like Jordan, he gets his teammates to pick up their games, too.

Come June the chances are good the Lakers will be in the finals, just like they have been the last three years. Once there, the odds will be even better that they will win it all again.

Bryant will have matched Jordan title for title.

And then the debate can really begin.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org