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.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org