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Scott Howard-Cooper

After the sweep of Utah, Kobe Bryant has looked a lot more like his usual self.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Lakers' playoff layoffs help Bryant get back to old self

Posted May 13 2010 8:24AM

A few weeks after aching his way through early first-round games against the young legs and speed of Oklahoma City, the last team anyone wants to see while hoping to mend, Kobe Bryant suddenly looks a lot like Bryant again, as the Jazz can attest through heavy sighs.

He averaged 32 points, 5.8 assists and 52.3 percent from the field in the four games of the surprisingly quick Western Conference semifinals, doing so even with the concession that he is not at full strength (and probably won't be the rest of the playoffs).

That'll do for faking it, then. In the other sign of how circumstances have changed, dispatching Utah in such short order turned into six full days off (and a large chunk of a seventh). That gives Bryant a windfall of treatment and rest before the West finals against the Suns begin Monday in L.A. With Games 3 and 4 against the Jazz as the only action in a span of 12 days -- this has broken incredibly right for the defending champions.

"I think it has to be a big factor for him, to try and get himself back to where he probably has been," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said Sunday of the rest issue, the day before the Lakers ended the series. "You can tell he's not as lively as he was. Something's bothering him, whether it's his leg or whatever. Rest certainly won't hurt him, I don't think. If he misses practice, it doesn't matter. He's pretty good.

"He's such a great player, he draws so much attention that if you give too much help somebody else is open, if you don't give enough help, he's got what he wants. Kind of like Miss America."

Um. Miss America?

"Yeah," Sloan said. "You know she gets what she wants."

Sloan dropping beauty-pageant analogies. Yeah, this hasn't gotten too bizarre.

And then there's Derek Fisher, the point guard who came into the league with Bryant and has spent 11 seasons as running mate in the Lakers' backcourt, noting with full sarcasm the increasing number of Kobe-like playoff moments:

"For a guy that doesn't practice, you know, he's not wasting that much energy on any other day but the game, so I'm not surprised at all that he can tear it up in the game. The rest of us are out there practicing and giving it our all and everything. He just gets to show up in the game and put the cape on and do his thing. So it's not a surprise at all."

Capes. Tiaras.

Please let the next round get here fast.

Beyond the non-medical explanations that Bryant is more like his old self every day, there is the strange realization that the Lakers' star of four championships has a chance to make this playoff run declare itself in a way no other has. Quite a thought when it seems like he already has every resume builder. But to win again this June while overcoming so much physical anguish, especially the fractured finger on his shooting hand and the bum knee that forced Bryant to concede he was playing on one leg for much of the first round, would be a prideful accomplishment.

Remember the Thunder series?

Bryant averaged 23.5 points, down from the 27 of the regular season, and shot 40.8 percent. Kevin Durant made him look bad in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and then the Thunder embarrassed all the Lakers with a Game 4 blowout to make it 2-2.

That's when the world changed. Bryant went from missing four of the last five games of the regular season to playing every other day and logged 41 minutes in three of the first four games with OKC. Then, he finally got some recovery time. Two days off led into an easy Lakers victory in Game 5 (in which he played only 29 minutes), and that led into another two days off. Twenty-nine minutes over five days.

Since Game 6 against the Thunder and four against the Jazz, with the added bonus of three days off between Games 2 and 3 with Utah, Kobe has done this:

Thirty-two, 31, 30, 35 and 32 points. An average of 40 minutes per game while appearing stronger every time out. He's shot 51.3 percent from the field and most importantly, five L.A. victories.

"He has a very high pain threshold," Lakers trainer Gary Vitti said, giving much of the credit for the recovery to Bryant's work with physical therapist Judy Seto.

"Pain's a very subjective thing. What's a little to one person is a lot of pain to someone else. He has a very high pain threshold in terms of all the players I've worked with. The second thing about him is that he has an ability to not focus on pain. He focuses on the task at hand, which is playing the game. He focuses on the game and not on what's bothering him."

"We just worked on it from game to game," Bryant said. "We'd say, 'Just get through this next game. And then let's get through the next one.' That's all we did. And those three days really did wonders for me."

He adds that "I don't think I'll ever be a hundred percent, but I'm going to keep getting better and maybe I'll get to 90. But I feel pretty good right now."

One of the most unique of Bryant's many postseason rolls on because of it, from the Thunder to the Jazz to the Suns, complete with recoveries of the basketball and medical variety. Complete with tiaras, actually.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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