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Art Garcia

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Kobe's double-sided game pushes Lakers to The Finals

By Art Garcia,
Posted May 30 2009 6:55PM

DENVER -- One sometimes is better than two.

One key advantage for the Nuggets coming into the Western Conference finals, at least in theory, never played out. The combo of Melo and Chauncey didn't trump Kobe. There isn't much that does.

"Jesus would have had trouble covering him," George Karl said with equal parts praise and awe for what Kobe Bryant and the Lakers completed Friday night.

No one out there sincerely doubts what No. 24 can do, but it's always nice to get a refresher course on the league's best player wearing an even number. Kobe has been doing it the entire series, so his performance in the sixth and final game comes as no shock. Bryant scored 35 and dished out 10 assists to close out Denver 119-92 at The Can.

(Watch a Game 6 replay Sunday at noon ET on NBA TV.)

Kobe proved that one is greater than two, especially when that one can do the job of those two. Bryant is Carmelo Anthony when the Lakers need him to be and can become Chauncey Billups when it's time to make the switch. Depending on what the Lakers need, Kobe finds a way to deliver.

Karl said three bombs exploded on the Nuggets with their season on the line. Bryant was the third.

Kobe called the Lakers "bipolar" after the uneven seven-game Houston series. Schizo may be more like it. But the Black Mamba beat the Nuggets with dual personalities. With a spot back in The Finals there for the Lakers to take, Kobe scored more than Melo and assisted more than Chauncey. Bryant simply led more than each.

"He had that killer look in him," said Luke Walton, one of the many Lakers propped up by Kobe in Game 6.

Bryant's experience is these situations can't be discounted. Kobe has been here before. A lot. This is his sixth trip to the championship round (it's the Lakers' 30th) and he's after ring No. 4. Awaiting the Cleveland-Orlando victor, the Lakers are also the first runner-up to make it back to The Finals since New Jersey six years ago.

"We want Orlando," Andrew Bynum proclaimed, "because I think we owe them. They beat us 2-0 in the regular season, but we get homecourt against them and that's huge in The Finals. Last year we learned that."

The journey back wasn't ideal. The tougher-than-expected clash with the Rockets opened the Lakers up to doubts and dismissal in some circles. Kobe felt his share of frustrations along the way. Five technicals only tell part of the struggles to once again reign supreme out West.

"Much, much tougher," Bryant said on a night when his shot (12-of-20 from the floor, 9-of-9 at the line) seemed effortless. "Much more physical, mentally challenging for us, but we gained valuable experience [and] went through the roller coaster of emotions."

This was the first rodeo for Melo and Chauncey together. They took the Nuggets as deep into the Playoffs as any team in franchise history, joining the 1985 squad as the only other to reach the West finals. The Nuggets grew and learned plenty during a season of resurrection.

"We all need each other," Anthony said. "No one man can do it. Nobody by themselves."

Not even Kobe. He played the role of decoy Wednesday, bringing along his teammate for the ride. Last year's MVP scored a series-low 22 in Game 5, but the Lakers had their most well-rounded effort until the finale. Bryant's double-double Friday was his first of these Playoffs and 17th of his postseason career.

Going back to Denver, you just knew Kobe would take over when the moment called for it. As much as he trusts his teammates, is there anyone better equipped to take over in enemy postseason gyms? Kobe took turns directing traffic and running reds. His surge at the end of the first half turned a five-point lead into 13, and prompted Karl's declaration that Divine intervention wouldn't have helped.

"It's tough to say that's a compliment," Bryant said with a laugh. "It's a tremendous honor, obviously, to be viewed in terms of being hard to defend offensively.

"I did a great job a great job using my teammates and they knocked shots down and put the defense into position where could play 1-on-1 a little bit."

Need examples? Standing at the top of the 3-point arc in the third, Kobe held the ball calmly and motioned with the tilt of the head for Walton to pop out to the wing. Walton complied and responded by drilling with an open jumper. Kobe looked over and gave Walton a reassuring fist pump.

In the same spot two possessions later, Kobe went LeBron. Bryant took Billups off the dribble and, with Nene coming over to help, twisted to bank it in. Foul. Sixteen-point Lakers' lead.

"He played as well as you could pretty much every possession," Walton said. "He made the right decision every time."

Kobe kept his team focused in every way imaginable. Phil Jackson's highest-paid assistant coached during timeouts, expressly telling teammates exactly what he expected while letting them know it was time to finish the deal. When Pau Gasol was knocked to the court in the fourth, a victim of a flagrant foul, Kobe went forehead-to-forehead with the Spaniard.

"Looked like he was pretty upset," Mamba said. "Just reminded him of what we were here for."

After another 3-point dagger in the fourth forced another Denver timeout, Kobe was met with congratulations on his way back to the bench. The kind of congratulations usually seen at the end of the game. Six minutes and 15 seconds were left. The win had long since been salted away.

One man proved just too much.

If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.

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