This season has seen the changing of the guard. The superstars of one decade are starting to phase out and give way to the superstars of the next.
Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 1998 (Garnett also was at the 1997 game). Shaquille O'Neal was out of the league for the first time since 1992. It feels like a generation is ending. Steve Nash's free agency has some people buzzing, but he is no longer an MVP candidate or perennial All Star.
LeBron James is firmly implanted as the best player in the league and Kevin Durant is becoming a close second. The NBA is a young man's game. And Kobe Bryant seems to... well, Bryant seems to be testing that theory just a little bit.
Yes, Kobe Bryant is battling various nagging injuries and the wear and tear of so many games. Yet, Bryant never ceases to find a way to put the ball in the basket and score a lot of points.
You might have missed it with Andrew Bynum's triple double, Pau Gasol's smooth passing and the overall dominance that the Lakers displayed over the Nuggets in the first two games of the series, but Kobe Bryant can still put up a lot of points and look like, well, Kobe Bryant.
Bryant is not going to age gracefully like Garnett or Duncan have. He is not going to be the guy playing second fiddle as he goes to his twilight years. That is not Kobe Bryant. He is going to go down firing.
Bryant has scored 34.5 points per game on 49.1 percent shooting in the first two games of the series against Denver. And nobody is realizing this quite yet because of how much the Lakers are dominating the series so far and how much others have stepped up.
But this is the Kobe Bryant of the mid-2000s we remember. Deadly efficient. Unstoppable from everywhere on the floor. Just a pure scorer.
The only difference, maybe, is that he does not care about the scoring title this time (since he sat out the last game with 38 or so points separating him and Durant's scoring lead) and only cares about winning the championship. Just he is going to do it his way.
That might mean some crazy contested shot that somehow finds its way intot he basket. Bryant, after all, is averaging 26.5 field goal attempts per game.
Right now that is working as the Nuggets cannot match the Lakers' size and Bryant is hitting his shots at an incredibly efficient rate for someone that takes so many shots. This is Kobe Bryant we are talking about, so shooting is going to be OK if it is from him, from just about anywhere on the floor with just about any number of players defending him.
Game Two was Bryant's 83rd playoff game with 30 or more points. Yes, Bryant can still be as unstoppable as he was in his prime (which may not have actually ended).
"In the first game, he was getting a lot of layups and getting to the basket," Nuggets guard Ty Lawson said. "This game, he was hitting tough shots. Like the coaches said, we played better defense, but he was on fire. And sometimes you can't do anything about it when he's hitting shots like that."
Yes with Bryant, sometimes, there is nothing you can do. And Bryant seems to be in one of those zones for the moment. As the scene shifts to Denver, Los Angeles will probably need as much and more from Bryant.
Game Three was another strong scoring game from Bryant, even if it lacked the efficiency of the two games in L.A. Bryant had 22 points but hit only 7 of his 22 shots and 3 of his 10 3-pointers. Bryant could not keep up his pace in the second half, and he missed a few key shots as the Lakers tried to complete a 24-point comeback.
The Nuggets were able to out-hustle and outrun the Lakers in the high altitude, playing with the kind of energy you expect for the first home game of a Playoff series.
But Bryant is clearly not ready to let the world forget that he is still a superstar scorer even with the miles starting to wear on him. Kobe's work has just begun.
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