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Scott Howard-Cooper

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Kobe Bryant's dunk on Emeka Okafor in Game 5 might have been his most important hoop all night.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

One vintage dunk lifts Kobe, Lakers to the top once again


Posted Apr 27 2011 10:05AM

LOS ANGELES -- "Some injury," Hornets swingman Trevor Ariza said after Game 5.

Some injury, indeed.

It was nasty. Video A mighty collision of wills at the rim, and doctors will be removing pieces of Kobe Bryant from Emeka Okafor's posterized face for days. There could even be some basketball-leather shrapnel. It was just nasty.

Oh, the other injury. Yeah, never mind.

Bryant played 29 minutes on the sprained left ankle that forced him to hobble out of New Orleans Arena on crutches two nights earlier and required nonstop treatment to get him ready for Tuesday at Staples Center. He had a team-high 19 points, making eight of 13 shots.

Bryant didn't just heal. He got into the way-back machine. He saw a lane to the basket from the perimeter, then he saw Okafor coming to defend, and then he performed like Kobe of old (and not old as in last weekend, when health wasn't giving the Lakers something to worry other than the Hornets).

"It looked like he was going to challenge me at the rim," Bryant said. "I accepted the challenge."

Bryant throwing down on Okafor. Bryant throwing down on Father Time.

Same difference.

The Lakers are where they want to be, heading back to Louisiana for Game 6 on Thursday with a 3-2 lead, because Bryant is where he needs to be. Not in perfect health or probably close to it, but seizing every challenge and making it his own. If he must will inconsistent teammates into the semifinals by poking them with crutches, dumping ice buckets and heat packs on their heads and clipping the electronic-stimulation wires for his ankle to their hearts, so be it.

In some ways, the Lakers' 106-90 win was Bryant at his best without being close to his best. He was hurting bad enough that coach Phil Jackson said before the game he would bench his superstar if it Bryant was dragging down the team, and then Jackson later called him a liability in the first quarter. If Kobe had set the whole thing up to sandbag the Hornets and wasn't really in such bad shape, his coach was either in perfect sync with the script or faked out himself. (The other possibility, as suggested by Bryant: Typical Jackson chain-yanking.)

Either way, Bryant's teammates still lack the necessary postseason focus and he used the game to push them more than he pushed himself. Actually, he used one play.

The Staples Center crowd, nervous when the Hornets took a nine-point lead in the first quarter, erupted with new energy when Bryant thundered to the basket in a way he rarely does anymore. It shook the fans with passion and, more importantly, his teammates -- who went up by three at halftime and never trailed again.

"It's a message for us that this is important," Bryant said of the dunk on Okafor. "It's time to raise up and do what we gotta do. They know I save those. I don't have much of those left anymore."

One of the reporters in the interview room mentioned that reserve guard Shannon Brown said Bryant had an afro the last time he dunked like that. Yeah, Bryant came back, Brown was about 2. That's how much he saves those dunks.

"That's what he does," Hornets coach Monty Williams said when asked if Bryant's dunk was a galvanizing play for the Lakers and all those around them who needed the sign of reassurance.

"Did it look like his ankle was hurting? OK, then. So that's why I don't even get into all that. He made a spectacular play. In my opinion, when we went to the basket tonight, they were putting us on the ground. At some point, you have to know how to make a playoff foul.

"Whether it comes from this experience with our team, we have to learn how to not allow him to get that play off, because our guys are going down when they go to the basket. So galvanizing? I don't know what it is. He could have laid it up tonight and the crowd still would have screamed."

Not like this. The crowd understood the rare sighting of an acrobatic Bryant, just as they thrilled at another dunk and the move in traffic to snake around Carl Landry and Okafor for a twisting layup. The plays themselves were worth so much more than two points.

"He had a couple of spectacular dunks," Pau Gasol said. "Spectacular. Extremely aggressive and athletic and a hundred percent. We were all happy to see that and excited to see that, and I think everybody was. That was good because I think those kinds of plays give+ you confidence on your body no matter what you're going through."

Some -- yes -- galvanizing play. Some throwback moment.

Some injury.

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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