LOS ANGELES – The game, not much of one, actually, this first meeting between the Suns and the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, had been over for an hour before Kobe Bryant finally deigned to appear in the postgame interview room. Of course, the wait had less to do with gimpy condition of his recently drained knee, than with the prerogative of a man in his position.
Forget Jack. In this town, at this time of year, there is no bigger star than Bryant, who entered the big room, at long last, in a black jacket festooned with many, shiny zippers. The dark black glasses are always a nice touch, if somewhat predictable. But I'm happy to report he had the good manners to remove them before answering to the questions.
"Just being aggressive," he began. "...got shots, took them. Got lanes to the basket, took them."
In fact, he took 23 shots, which is about what he's been averaging over the last six games, a run that coincides with consecutive Lakers' victories. In each of the five previous games, he went for better than 30 points. On Monday, he made short work of the Suns while scoring an even 40, the 11th 40-point game of his postseason career.
But who's counting?
Well, Bryant for sure. I don't mean to give the impression that he always needs to be the high scorer. His sense of the game isn't nearly that crude. But he's keeping score - in every way, at all times. I'll say it again: it's his genius, an ability to take things personally. This Hollywood star is distinguished, not just by his imperiousness, but by a capacity to be offended, something he uses like nuclear fuel.
For several years now, people like me have been insisting that LeBron James is the best player in the game. But where is he now? Watching Kobe. Same with Shaquille O'Neal, for that matter.
Don't think any of that is lost on Bryant, who didn't score his first points until almost nine minutes had been played, and his 40th with still 9:35 remaining. In between, there was a 21-point third quarter (more than Steve Nash, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley would combine for on the evening) and a minor tiff with Grant Hill.
It's worth mentioning here that Hill is renowned as a defensive player and a three-time winner of NBA's Sportsman of the Year Award. He's not easily given to fits or furies. Still, his confrontation with Bryant - brought on, one surmises, by his inability to check him - left Hill on the receiving end of a technical foul.
One of Bryant's postgame inquisitors noted that "it looked like Grant Hill was trying to be very physical with you."
"No," he deadpanned. "It was enjoyable."
I asked if it didn't help him, making things personal.
"It's never personal with me," he said, flashing a grin that could only be described with a profane hyphenated adjective unfit for a website as proper as this.
Remember, it was Phoenix that knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. But the summer of '07 proved particularly embarrassing for the franchise and its star, as the five-game series prompted Bryant's demand to be traded to Pluto.
That seems so long ago. Only six Lakers remain from a roster that featured Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. Still, you know Bryant recalls his humiliation in painstaking detail. Some days ago, a Los Angeles Times reporter asked if revenge would be a motivating factor in this series.
"What do you think?" Bryant sneered.
Sure. Never personal.
"Just a little," he said.
For the record, Lamar Odom played a great game, 19 points and 19 rebounds. What's more, it felt like a summer-league contest by the third quarter. But the real message was delivered by Bryant.
"To show them that we're a different team than they faced," he said.
In other words, after all these years, the Suns finally get past the hard-ass San Antonio Spurs - sweep them, no less - and Kobe's there to remind them that they'd done nothing. And he didn't even have to practice. Bryant - who's played substantially more NBA minutes than anyone, ever, under the age of 32 - did little more than shoot around last week. After all, he had his knee drained.
"Any discomfort?" he was asked.
"I feel a couple of pounds lighter," he said, eliciting great guffaws in the interview room.
"Was this one of the most efficient games of your playoff career, 40 points, 35 minutes on just 23 shots?"
"Probably," he said. "...One of them, for sure."
With that, I found myself wishing he'd put those shades back on. This was, after all, part of the performance. It was after midnight in Cleveland, but Kobe had to figure LeBron was still watching.