If there was lingering doubt, shove it aside.
Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA.
Put the personality thoughts aside and be pragmatic. LeBron James can't defend the way Kobe does. With the sun setting in Miami, Dwyane Wade is a back-of-the-brain thought. For all his versatility, Steve Nash can't get his own shot anytime he wants or needs to. Bryant is the league kingpin, the self-titled Black Mamba.
A day after losing pressure-release valve Andrew Bynum, Bryant was in full binge and scourge mode last Monday in Seattle, providing reminders of his dominance.
Bryant scored 49 points, including the final six of overtime, though it required 44 shots. It was not meat-cleaver efficient but necessary. Without Bynum and with a crabby Lamar Odom, what was Bryant going to do? Pass it to Kwame Brown? It's also tough to fault the shot total when a guard finds success 48 percent of the time he puts it up.
Versatility on display, Bryant scored everywhere on the court. Twice in the post with left-handed miniature hooks, one a swish, the other enjoying the backboard. Midrange pull-ups were the most common result of his ability to move, stop, then elevate, resulting in clean jump shots. He also flew in for for a fast-break dunk.
A minute into the game, Bryant was able to alter the Sonics' pregame strategy. Isolated against Kevin Durant, Bryant faced up. One, two pump fakes, but Durant kept the toes of his size 18s on the floor. A third fake convinced Durant to leap, Bryant leaned in, Durant landed on him, the whistle blew. Foul No. 1 on the Sonics' leading scorer. The next possession Bryant took it right at him, and Durant, being no dummy, gave ground and space worrying about a second foul. Bryant canned a 17-footer. A possession later, Sonics coach P.J. Carlesimo switched rookie Jeff Green onto Bryant.
Green gave a defensive effort that would validate a seat at King Arthur's table, but Bryant carried the ability to step back and shoot at any point. Though strong, agile and toting a degree in defense from Georgetown, individually Green was no match for Bryant.
An arrogant posture and the shine of Los Angeles media have made Bryant appetizing for public consumption. His good looks, success, and public trial plenty to prompt fans to support or despise him. Red KeyArena seats were filled with white, gold and purple Monday, some with the No. 8 on the back, others with a 24, Bryant's name arced above both numbers. His play drew the largest collective crowd reactions, boos and gasps of awe. Even the Seattle public address announcer joined in, announcing Bryant's third quarter re-entry with disdain.
Though there is no arguing with his ability. Three NBA titles, nine All-Star games, four scoring titles, yet, oddly, never finishing higher than third in MVP voting. He's an end-game player, able to choose his spot, and, more importantly, get to it. Prior to the final Lakers possession, it was never a question of whether he would get a good shot off, only if it was going in.
Bryant's domination of the Seattle game was anticipated prior to the tip. Carlesimo said he was all right with Bryant taking a lot of shots, which he did. The 44 attempts were a season high, just three short of his career high. His 49 points and 21 field goals also personal highs this season.
Lost in the considerable volume of attempts was Bryant's ability to squelch Durant's offense. The spindly rookie was 6-for-26, though one of the six was a prime-time 3 that knotted the game at 115, forcing overtime. Durant also had an attempt to win the game in regulation, but Bryant forced him into an odd angle for the 20-foot attempt.
In the extra five minutes, with his team down four, Bryant scored the final six points. Durant was scoreless.
The Sonics ran plays designed to get the ball to Durant, but even that proved to be a chore despite Bryant colliding with multiple screens. Holding and bullying Durant, Bryant used his star status and the reluctance of officials to call crunch-time fouls to his advantage. Whereas earlier in the game Bryant allowed some distance between himself and the only super Sonic, only a finger-length gap existed in overtime.
"That's why he's the best player in the world," Durant said.
Bryant's offensive and defensive success during a third game in four nights can be directly attributed to how hard he works. He's filled in his arms and chest since entering the league 10 years ago at age 18. He pushes postgame weight while teammates push Blackberry buttons on their way out the door. In a recent Esquire article, Bryant talked of his skill-honing habits, saying he practices making shots, not taking them.
"He works so hard during practice, after practice and days off," Durant said.
His mental acuity parallels his physical dominance. Overtime over, Bryant reflected on determining his approach to the night. He felt the Lakers were deflated following the news Bynum would be absent for eight weeks, not to mention their recent frequency of play.
His thought of how to handle the situation was as simple as he made the game look.
"It was just one of those things where I wanted to be much more assertive," Bryant said.
His assertiveness resulted in scoring 40-plus points for the 87th time, just one behind Elgin Baylor for third all-time in the NBA. For those groaning about the shot attempts, understand the Lakers are 12-2 this season when Bryant scores more than 30 points.
He's the best playing today. No matter the situation, Bryant will find success. Need a play? He'll make it. Need to score? He will. Need a stop? He'll get it.
Who else does that?