EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP)—Nike can put those puppets back on the shelf for another summer. Basketball historians anticipating the real-life answers to a delicious theoretical debate must keep waiting.
LeBron is gone, from the playoffs and maybe from Cleveland. James’ long-anticipated NBA finals clash with Kobe Bryant(notes) is off again, and it’s now distinctly possible it will never happen.
Yet if Bryant was even slightly disappointed to learn that James won’t be showing up for a possible career-defining showdown, the Los Angeles Lakers star isn’t letting on.
Bryant had almost nothing to say Friday about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff elimination, which ruined the best chance yet for a finals meeting with James.
“I don’t know,” Bryant said when asked what he thought of Boston’s Game 6 victory, before an awkward silence with the phalanx of television cameras and digital recorders pointed at him in a back corner of the Lakers’ training complex.
Surely Bryant realizes the anticipation was extra-high this spring, after the superstars’ teams finished atop their respective conferences with two of the NBA’s top three records. Nike certainly spent many months hoping for the showcase of two top clients, building that unusual advertising campaign around their puppet replicas.
But while James begins his offseason, Bryant is still standing—albeit on a gimpy ankle—after persevering through an injury-riddled year. The veteran star won’t slow down for the Western Conference finals just because King James isn’t waiting on the other side.
The series against the Phoenix Suns begins Monday night in Los Angeles.
“We have a huge challenge on our hands with the things that they run and how they play,” Bryant said. “You have to control the pace and control the turnovers.”
Bryant didn’t practice again for the Lakers, giving him four straight days off the court following their second-round sweep of the Utah Jazz. Bryant needs every possible minute to rest his troublesome ankle, his arthritic finger and a few other maladies that have turned this season into a grind.
Bryant is expected back in practice Saturday along with center Andrew Bynum(notes), who also had four days off to lower the swelling in his injured knee.
Bryant’s teammates were a bit less guarded with their opinions on the seismic shift in the Eastern Conference following the Cavs’ ouster, with Lamar Odom(notes) and Pau Gasol(notes) both expressing surprise at the result. The East final now matches the Lakers’ last two opponents in the NBA finals.
“It’s a little surprising, but obviously Boston has raised their level from the regular season,” Gasol said. “We know they’re a good team that’s capable of doing that, and Cleveland is out.”
Gasol also had a more practical interest: Cleveland would have had home court advantage in an NBA finals meeting after finishing with the league’s best regular-season record. Orlando also won two more games than the Lakers in the regular season.
“It’s good, because if you have to want to play someone in the finals, you want to have the home court advantage,” Gasol said. “I guess it’s good that one of the teams is out, but we still have to focus on getting there first.”
For that, they’ll need Bryant’s best efforts against the high-scoring Suns and their improved defense. Bryant has scored at least 30 points in five straight playoff games, making more than 52 percent of his shots against Utah.
Although he rarely acknowledges it in words, Bryant has always seemed to bristle at the suggestion that his basketball pre-eminence is linked to anybody else.
His partnership with Shaquille O’Neal(notes) produced three straight championships and four NBA finals trips in its final five years, yet concluded with Shaq’s abrupt departure amid widespread belief Bryant wanted to be the Lakers’ lone superstar.
Bryant’s teammates believe those titles, along with the ring he won last summer with a near-replica of his current team, will be the biggest difference between Bryant and James until LeBron puts a few pieces of jewelry on his ringless hand.
“Kobe doesn’t have to compare himself to anybody,” said Lakers guard Derek Fisher(notes), also a four-time champion. “Everybody on our team knows what he means to this team and this game of basketball. That kind of speculation isn’t anything real.”
MY word VS Yours I am a die-hard Laker fan so you know I’m always gonna ride with Kobe but this is simply what separates Kobe from Lebron and the rest of the pack. Kobe is a winner, a killer on the court Lebron James has yet to develop those instincts