Kobe Bryant was standing in a hallway of a Sacramento hotel during the Los Angeles Lakers' second-round playoff series against the Kings when a toddler waddled toward him. "You're not quite ready to play with the grown-ups yet," the boy's mother said as she gathered him in her arms. Then she looked at Bryant, sizing up his 6'7" frame. "And that young man is very grown up," she said.
Suddenly that seems to be the universal appraisal of Bryant, whose maturity on the court is either thrilling or frightening to behold, depending on your point of view. The San Antonio Spurs no doubt have the latter perspective, especially after Bryant, the Lakers' 22-year-old swingman, blitzed them with 45 points and 10 rebounds in Los Angeles's 104-90 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals last Saturday at the Alamodome. He was almost as spectacular in Game 2 on Monday night, scoring 28 points and handing out a game-high six assists in an 88-81 Lakers win—their 17th in a row, including nine in the playoffs, dating from April 1—that turned a series that was supposed to be an epic struggle into a potential rout.
As the teams headed to L.A. for Games 3 and 4, San Antonio was hoping that 6'5" Derek Anderson, the Spur best equipped to counteract Bryant, would recover from his right shoulder separation so he could play in this series, perhaps as early as Game 3. Still, it's hard to imagine that even a healthy Anderson would have reined in Bryant on Saturday. "I told Kobe he's my idol," said Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant's sometime rival, who had 28 points and 11 boards in the opener. "He's playing phenomenal. I think he's the best player in the league, by far." Although not all of Shaq's declarations can be taken at face value—as his supposed paramours Aaliyah, Cindy Crawford and Venus Williams would attest—all indications are that this time, he wasn't joking.
Indeed, after a string of virtuoso performances in the playoffs, Bryant is no longer merely one of the NBA's new young stars; he's the best of them, and he may be the finest all-around player in the game. With all due respect for the prolific scoring of Allen Iverson and Vince Carter in the Philadelphia 76ers- Toronto Raptors series (box, page 42) and for O'Neal's domination of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Kings in Rounds 1 and 2, Bryant has been the most compelling act of me postseason. Through Monday he was averaging 32.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 42.8 minutes, and he's been equally effective on defense. His harassment had the Spurs' guards struggling to make entry passes to big men Tim Duncan and David Robinson in Game 1, and he threw in a steal and a blocked shot—both of them spectacular—for good measure. "I don't want to be known as a great scorer," Bryant says. "I want to be known as a great basketball player."
At this rate he will also be known as a great postseason basketball player, the most coveted reputation of all. Bryant's ability to ratchet up his game in the playoffs is reminiscent of You-Know-Who's. When Lakers forward Horace Grant, a former teammate of Michael Jordan's, repeatedly referred to Bryant as "number 23" after Game 1, it wasn't a slip. Although Bryant will continue to improve—he may be five or six years from his prime, for goodness' sake—there's suddenly far less talk about what he could become than about what he already is. "Maybe he's still learning," said San Antonio forward Danny Ferry after Game 1, "but he already knows plenty."
Bryant's masterpiece on Saturday was Jordan-like in its seeming effortlessness. He played 47 minutes and took 35 shots (making 19), yet he never seemed the slightest bit greedy or out of control, as he sometimes has in the past. "His shots were coming out of the flow of the offense," Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said. "He wasn't out there hunting for shot opportunities. The opportunities were finding him."
Recognizing that the presence of Duncan and Robinson in the middle would make it difficult for O'Neal to control the low post as completely as he usually does, the Lakers spread the floor to open lanes for their perimeter players, particularly Bryant. He repeatedly pierced the San Antonio defense, and he finished with authority once he reached the rim. During one third-quarter sequence he dunked three times within three minutes, once with both of the Spurs' 7-footers contesting the shot. "I'll take it to the basket aggressively against anyone," Bryant says.
Throughout the playoffs Bryant has made his game a touch more conservative without losing any of its electricity. When the Spurs were making their final run in the fourth quarter of Game 1, cutting a 16-point advantage to 10, Bryant helped finish them off with a flourish. First, he dunked an alleyoop pass from Robert Horry for an 84-72 advantage. Moments later, he missed a short jumper in the lane but sprung for the rebound and slammed it in. The Alamodome crowd was still murmuring over that play's degree of difficulty when Bryant blocked an Avery Johnson layup. Finally, he drilled a three from the top of the key that gave the Lakers a 96-81 lead and sealed the win.
Bryant has also shown the ability to modulate his game according to the circumstances. Young stars such as Carter, Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Chris Webber are all the first offensive option on their teams, free to look for their shots as much as they choose. Not so Bryant, who has to read the way the defense is playing O'Neal and decide whether to dominate or defer. Whenever Shaq was on a roll early in the postseason, Bryant was a willing distributor, much as he was in Game 1 against San Antonio, when the Lakers went inside early and often. However, when Duncan and Robinson bottled O'Neal up a bit, Bryant pumped up the volume on his own game, pouring in 12 points in the first quarter.
Although they acknowledged Bryant's brilliance, the Spurs came out of Game 1 feeling they had made things easier for him with uninspired D. "We were way too slow in coming to help out on him," Robinson said. "Kobe was on the perimeter, playing with the ball and going nowhere. That's when we should have been coming aggressively to help out and double-team."