Los Angeles Among Kobe Bryant’s myriad of inimitable talents is what’s known to opposing coaches simply as the “rise-up.”
That’s when Bryant has a defender blanketing him on the perimeter, obstructing his vision and physically preventing him from driving — yet Kobe simply leaps high enough and leans far enough forward or backward to release a perfect jumper anyway.
Bryant rose up against Grant Hill in the final minute of the Los Angeles Lakers’ conference-clinching victory over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night, putting his stamp on a 37-point performance that sent the Lakers into the NBA finals with a chance for revenge on the Boston Celtics.
Even with Hill right in his grill, Bryant leaped up and away from the veteran forward and drilled a clinching 23-footer. The basket essentially clinched the Lakers’ victory, and Bryant punctuated it with a pat on Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry’s derriere.
“I said, ‘Good defense,’ to Grant,” Gentry recalled with a rueful smile. “(Bryant) said, ‘Not quite good enough.’ ... I thought Grant was going to block the shot. That was a fallaway three-pointer with a hand in your face, off balance. You know, that’s who he is. That really is who he is.”
Bryant is enjoying arguably the most impressive playoff run of his career, and not because his numbers are any larger than in a previous postseason. He has scored 30 points in 10 of the Lakers’ last 11 games — and moreover, he has willed a team with an injured center, two more inconsistent starters and little bench help beyond Lamar Odom into its third straight NBA finals, starting Thursday night at Staples Center.
Although Bryant claimed he didn’t care who the Lakers played in the finals, Bryant sometimes isn’t exactly forthcoming about either his injuries or his passions. It’s tough to believe Bryant isn’t thrilled by the chance to cap another stirring playoff run with a revenge victory over his franchise’s biggest playoff rival, which sent Bryant home from the finals two years ago.
“It’s a sexy matchup,” Bryant acknowledged. “We’re looking forward to this challenge, looking forward to the test.”
There’s another reason many expect Bryant to come out blazing against the Celtics: He didn’t play terribly well two years ago in the finals, his first without Shaquille O’Neal by his side. He averaged 25.7 points and made about 40 percent of his shots against the Celtics, who finished off Los Angeles with an embarrassing 131-92 victory in Game 6.
The Lakers also didn’t have center Andrew Bynum, who was out for the year due to an injury, or defensive stopper Trevor Ariza, who had a broken foot. Bynum is hobbling around on torn cartilage in his right knee this time, yet he’s healthy enough to play interior defense and occasionally throw down a dunk or two.
In Ariza’s place, the Lakers now have Ron Artest, who followed up his winning layup in Game 5 with 25 points in the clincher against Phoenix. After two series without a clear-cut defensive assignment, Artest likely will be attached at the hip to Paul Pierce in the finals.