Posted: Wednesday May 2, 2012 3:20AM ; Updated: Saturday May 5, 2012 5:27PM
Lee Jenkins
Lee Jenkins>INSIDE THE NBA

Well-rested Kobe scorches Nuggets as Lakers eye another title run

Story Highlights

Kobe Bryant's rest at the end of the regular season is paying off in the playoffs

Bryant had 38 in Game 2 and looks rejuvenated by his improved supporting cast

With a potential meeting against the Thunder, Kobe needs all the rest he can get

Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
 
Game 2   Game Leaders
Lakers lead 2-0   POINTS REBOUNDS ASSISTS
104 100
 
Bryant
38
Gasol
10
Miller
8
 
Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant topped his 31-point performance in Game 1 by pouring in 38 points against the Nuggets in Game 2 on Tuesday.
Harry How/Getty Images
Lakers lead 2-0
GAME 1  Lakers 103, Nuggets 88
GAME 2  Lakers 104, Nuggets 100
GAME 3  at DEN, Fri. May 4, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
GAME 4  at DEN, Sun. May 6, 9:30 p.m., TNT
GAME 5  at LAL, Tue. May 8, If Necessary
GAME 6  at DEN, Thu. May 10, If Necessary
GAME 7  at LAL, Sat. May 12, If Necessary

LOS ANGELES -- At 33, Kobe Bryant has already logged more minutes than Michael Jordan, played in more seasons than Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. His 6-foot-6 frame, slender compared to the NBA's modern stars, has absorbed injury-inducing blows to virtually every relevant part. He cracks jokes about his dwindling vertical leap. But on some nights, when the legs are fresh and the back is loose, when there is spring in the knees and juice in the joints, he can appear utterly ageless.

Staples Center is home to the collagen-filled and Botox-infused, or so the stereotypes go, but Bryant is the rare Hollywood icon who naturally defies time. In Game 2 against Denver on Tuesday night, he was once again the teenager with the afro, rising over 7-foot Kosta Koufos for a baseline jam, blocking 6-9 Al Harrington from behind on a fast break, tossing 26-year-old Corey Brewer aside like a used Gatorade cup. On one drive, he spun through the Nuggets entire front line, finishing with a finger-roll. Bryant scored 38 points in a 104-100 win, helping the Lakers take a 2-0 series lead. And while he was not always efficient, he was relentlessly active. "You've got to go after it," Bryant said. "You've got to go get it."

He was referring to his sixth championship, once a pipe dream, and now at least an outside possibility. The arrival of Ramon Sessions, the emergence of Andrew Bynum, the improvement of Pau Gasol and the preparation of Mike Brown have infused Bryant with energy unseen in the past year-and-a-half. "He knows he has players around him who can get that next ring," said Brown.

Denver plays at the fastest pace of any team in the post-season field but they have not been able to keep up with the lumbering Lakers, who have yet to trail in this series. The Nuggets may need to reconsider their defensive strategy before Game 3 on Friday. They tried to single cover Bryant with Arron Afflalo, who grew up in nearby Compton, watching the Lakers. Afflalo idolized Bryant, so much so that some of his teammates in Denver call him "The Rattlesnake," a counterpoint to the Black Mamba. On Tuesday, the Mamba bit the Rattler with a diverse sequence of tricks he has honed over 49,000 minutes in the NBA: the double-clutch jumper, the reverse spin in the lane, and the one-legged fade-away he poached from Dirk Nowitzki. "I improved his move," Bryant said with a smile. "I can shoot mine from the three-point line. He can't do that."

Bryant was 14-of-22 through three quarters and obviously exhausted, making only 1-of-7 in the fourth. Still, he came away with the crucial swipe of Kenneth Faried in the final minutes, racing the length of the court and setting up a Bynum dunk with a wrap-around pass behind Danilo Gallinari. "I just had to get the ball," Bryant said. "I don't know who was under the basket. I just pushed them out the way."

Like the television audience, the Lakers can sense when Bryant is about to uncoil, and they predicted this performance. In recent days, Brown heard Bryant's voice, louder and more constant, exhorting Sessions to attack, Gasol to post up, Bynum to duck in. The relationship between Bryant and Bynum, once strained, was solidified at the All-Star Game in Orlando, where they spent all their free time together. "We didn't really care about the other guys," Bryant said. As disappointed as Bryant was by the Derek Fisher trade, it forced him to assume a larger leadership role, and Tuesday he was flexing at Gasol in a timeout, lecturing Bynum after a turnover, and standing alone on the bench when the second unit scored.

Bryant racked up 31 points in Game 1, but was overshadowed by Bynum's 10 blocks and triple-double. The landscape has obviously changed in L.A., where Bynum is now seeing the double teams and Bryant is enjoying the space. Time will eventually out-pace Bryant -- NBA defenses are counting on it -- and he knows he does not have many chances left at a championship. That's why he sat out seven games in April with a bruised shin, even though he despises missing time in the regular season. It's also why he skipped the finale at Sacramento, when he was just 38 points short of the scoring title. "He changes," said Sessions. "There are no smiles. He is all business."

He is surely eyeing Oklahoma City, a potential opponent in the Western Conference semifinals, already up 2-0 on Dallas. The Lakers typically toy with first-round foes, but Bryant acknowledged a different approach. They must close Denver quickly to earn Bryant more rest, so he can deliver more of what he did Tuesday: in-your-face dunks, come-from-behind blocks and end-to-end trips back in time.

 
SI.com
Hot Topics: NBA Playoffs NHL Playoffs NFL schedule LaMarcus Aldridge Michael Pineda Phil Jackson Tiger Woods
TM & © 2014 Time Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you. Read our privacy guidelines, your California privacy rights, and ad choices.
SI CoverRead All ArticlesBuy Cover Reprint