Rising To The Occasion

Published 9:19 pm Sunday, May 30, 2010

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.

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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 3https://www.irontontribune.com/admin/media/croppedphotos/-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.

The surprising Suns would have had an above-average chance to knock off the defending champions if Bryant hadn’t been at his absolute best. He averaged 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the series while making 52.1 percent of his shots, repeatedly burning Phoenix for late-game baskets.

As for the breathtaking shot that almost nobody else in the NBA can make consistently, Bryant is almost nonchalant about his ability to rise up when it matters.

“I just had to create a little bit of space,” said Bryant, who stretched out his arms in imitation of an airplane on the way back to the bench. “I had a good look. Looks like a much tougher shot than it actually is. I got a good look. Got my legs underneath me. I was able to knock it down.”

Bryant likely will get another four days off to rest up for the finals. He hasn’t practiced much at all this spring while recovering from several injuries, but after six previous trips to the NBA finals, Bryant knows exactly how to pace his body for the two-month playoff haul.

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 with 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.

The series was a rare playoff failure for coach Phil Jackson, who won’t lack for motivational tools with a majority of that 2008 team still wearing purple and gold.

“We have … five new members of the team, but some of these guys remember how it felt to lose,” Jackson said. “There’s nothing worse than losing in a finals. It’s about as low as you can get after riding a high, getting through three series, going into the fourth one. I had hoped I’d never experience it, but I’ve done it twice now, so I know it’s a real difficult summer after that.”

Bryant has at times made a show of his focus in these playoffs, responding to reporters’ questions with one-word, humorless answers. His demeanor recalls the unsmiling focus of Michael Jordan, who win six championships — one more than the 31-year-old Bryant will have if he gets the Lakers past Boston this time around.

“Just looking forward to the challenge of it,” Bryant said. “Last time we played them, it was a great learning experience for us. It taught us what it takes to be a champion. With the defensive intensity they play with, the tenacity they play with, we learned a great deal in that series.”